On Roads Less Travelled

April’s column for First City magazine. Pliz to comment.

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On Roads Less Travelled

A Musical Introduction

“Here”, he said, thrusting a hard-bound copy of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian into my hands. “Sit down and read this. I have just one email to send and then we’ll be off.” Over an hour later, by which time I’d become engrossed in Sen’s meditations on the relevance of dialogue in a democracy, he strode past briskly, saying “Let’s go.”

I put down that odd choice for a waiting room book and followed him to the jeep that was to take us to his resort in the forest. We were soon underway, and the usual opening salvos of chit-chat began. Then, on learning of my plans to study public policy, he let fly with “So what do you think of the consumerist ethos in terms of public policy?”

“Whoa!” I thought, and after mumbling some feeble thoughts on the issue found a way to steer the conversation to his own life story and the resort he’d been running for the last decade and a half. “And my son has just gotten the internet set up at the lodge”, he finished. “They say that the internet can change the world. But I think that’s just a ploy to sell more computers.”

Having declared this verdict on the efficacy of the internet, he switched on 1970s Hindi pop and turned the volume up high. Loud music has never bothered me so I soon dozed off. About an hour later, I woke up to the fading sunlight and Bob Dylan replacing Kishore Kumar. Impressively, my host seemed to know all the lyrics to Mr. Tambourine Man. Sitting in the back seat, I surveyed him for a minute: this man who has been written about by writer after writer, often exaggeratedly such as the time one famous travel writer had him eating red chillies out of a jar for a mid-day snack. There he sat in the front seat with arms folded tightly except when he wasn’t puffing on a cigarette, lord of all he surveyed, belting out Western rock anthems from memory while imitating each singer’s style – from Dylan’s nasal twang to Jim Morrison’s deep baritone to Little Richard’s lusty enthusiasm. With his slowly balding head, Castro beard and nicotine-stained teeth, I could see how such a larger-than-life persona would lend itself easily to dramatizations once time dissolves and jumbles memories in the writer’s head. I knew then that I too would inevitably feel compelled to put down my impressions of him.

As the road would through the darkening paddy fields, I found myself again being lulled to sleep by the music. When I awoke, we were halting at a fairly typical highway town. He turned to me and said, a little hesitantly, “Do you drink? Shall I get us some liquor?” I said yes, and he vanished. Getting out to stretch my legs, I wandered over to a TV store and joined the bored employees in watching Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir square off against some fired-up South African fast bowling until, eventually, the driver materialized by me and whisperered, “Sir, saab vaapas aaya.”

We were soon off again into the darkness of the highway. Bob Dylan returned to fill the night with Like a Rolling Stone. He passed me a bottle of whiskey to pour into the empty mineral water plastic bottle that he had rummaged up from the floor of the front seat. ‘When in Rome…’ I thought, and joined my host in chasing cheese and chutney sandwiches with a blend of whiskey and water. And singing along lustily but tunelessly with Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, and Elvis Presley as we would our way in pitch darkness through the forest to our jungle lodging.

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Chanting Off the Beaten Path

One of the most pleasurable things in travel is to go off the beaten path (a cliché, but clichés become clichés by being true), or do a detour on a whim. One Sunday morning in Itanagar, after a fruitless visit to the under-renovation Jawaharlal Nehru Musuem, I was returning to town with my travel buddy when, in a curve of the road, we saw an archway with Buddhist symbols and a driveway sloping up from under it. The driveway led away from the road leading back into central Itanagar. But at the time we were also, boys being boys, throwing stones at semi-distant targets and seeing how many we could hit. There was an inviting tree up the driveway and so we strolled in to, well, see if we could hit it.

After demonstrating that neither one of us would run out Mohammed Kaif taking a quick single, we wandered further up the road and eventually came to a large white stupa. By now we could hear music and, entering the compound, saw that the stupa was merely an adjunct to a lovely little monastery (which was puzzlingly named “Center for Buddhist Heritage Studies”, despite clearly being a prayer room). The music was now exerting a compelling pull, and so we entered the prayer room. Only to collapse on the floor mats after all the walking (and stone-throwing) we’d just been doing.

This gompa was slightly different from others I’ve seen. It had an alcove with the mesmerizing butter-lamps inside the gompa, while normally they are in an outside room. Furthermore, the murals on the walls were more explicit than usual – for instance, the scene where the meditating Siddhartha is besieged by Buddhist Eves offering their own versions of the forbidden apple was rendered in some detail, especially the genitals of the nude temptresses.

Yet it was the music that was most captivating. It consisted of the central Buddhist mantra (“Om Mani Padme Hum“) set to a simple rhythmic melody and chanted in a repetitive cycle. But words cannot describe the powerful effect of that chant on a balmy Sunday morning on an Itanagar hill-top. We sat in that prayer room for several minutes, soaking it in. I found myself able to get up and move again only after the tape ended.

Earlier, while walking towards the gompa, we’d noticed a couple of monks sitting in the sunshine and so I walked over to them to enquire about the music. Much to my delight, one of the monks offered to give me a recording. He ran back to his room and returned with a handful of recorded tapes. We then walked back inside the gompa to try them on the stereo system that had been playing the chanting earlier. Some of the monk’s tapes had Hindi pop and Bhangra on them, which blared incongruously through the gompa. But he finally found me a copy of the chants and passed it over wordlessly. I held the tape to my heart in thanks, paid to cover the cost of the blank tape, and walked out somewhat light-headed, clutching my prized possession.

Itanagar, while being the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, is not especially famous as a Buddhist centre. As a result, I hadn’t been looking for monasteries there, especially having just come from the largest one in India (in Tawang). It was entirely through following a whim that we struck gold. And, like Rob Frost once pointed out, it makes all the difference.

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Acknowledgement: My travels in the northeast were partly made possible through the support and encouragement of Pravah, a Delhi-based organization that is “dedicated to equipping young people with skills essential to building sensitivity and responsibility towards the society we live in, and developing them into positive Changemakers of the future.”

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