Wednesday, May 28, 2014


"Grande pescado!" — he whistles to me, and makes a calling gesture. It's midnight, and we are sitting at the base of the lighthouse at Puerto de Eivissa — a rather small lighthouse on a jetty protruding into the Mediterranean Sea. "Tuna?" I ask, looking at about the two-feet long fish swimming in the clear waters below which he is pointing at. "No no, Barracuda" is his response. We have been communicating with either single or two-word sentences, or just sitting in silence for about an hour now.

After rejecting the idea of "dude, you definitely want to be at the opening party of Space tonight" put forward by an Australian traveler in my hostel, I had taken a leisurely walk to the harbour, and reached the end of the jetty to this lighthouse. He was busy attaching bait to the end of his fishing hook, and was about to throw the line when I reached. His response to my greeting was "no hablo Inglés, only Español", and since then, the number of spoken words between us have been minimal. "What's that? Pollo? Trenera? Carnes?" I ask, pointing at the bait, using whatever Spanish vocabulary I can muster. He says something, and points at the box of live snails from which he meticulously picks out the bugs and puts the hook through their mouths. On the other side of the port, music is bursting out from the white roofs of a club — one of the numerous ones that have made the island of Ibiza infamous — the silhouettes of young people dancing on the techno sound seem to be moving like banished souls of graveyards stuck on the white walls with black glue. The noise, to me, seems to be tearing apart the tranquility of this beautiful night, drowning the sweet whispers of the ocean waves caressing the shores of this island.

"No party?" he asks, pointing towards the club. "No no, no me gusta party" is my response, to which he laughs heartily. The fishing rod has been stuck in the ground for quite a while now, and we haven't been able to see any to-and-fro movement of the string so far as he had demonstrated a while ago, a sign of a catch stuck on the hooks. "Gitano. Gypsy" he says pointing at himself, almost baring his life to me with that single word. Gypsies are equated, almost generically, as evil people in at least the Europe I have seen so far — just another easy generalization humanity is so accustomed to in every corner of the world. "Ibiza?" he asks, probably trying to understand who I am and what I am doing here. "Me Indien", I say, and make a swooshing gesture through the air to demonstrate that I flew here for travel. "Muy bien, Ibiza" I add, hoping he would understand I like this island so far. He smiles at this. I have not been quite lucky for him — he did catch a few different types of sea-creatures I can see deposited in a box — but over the last hour, there has been no success. But I guess he likes my company, as do I.

Just after I said "buenas noches, adios señor" and started walking back at about 1:30 am, he whistles again. He has caught a round shaped creature I can't identify, and is excited to show it to me. The creature is flapping itself on the ground, apparently gasping for air. He deposits it in a polythene bag and says "restaurant, bien moneda" suggesting that he hopes to get good money selling it. I decide to sit for a while longer — we have walked to a different spot on the jetty which is more lit up, and it's nicer to see different fish and other creatures swimming in the clear waters below. He has changed the type of hook at the end of his rod, probably to catch something different.

The polythene bag is still flapping, it has been several minutes but the creature inside it hasn't probably given up on life as yet. The music at the club hasn't given up either, though the tone seems to have diluted — I can now distinctly identify Celine Dion's "My heart will go on", a stark departure from the electronic noise that was blasting a while ago. I walk back at about 2 am — the previous night was long for me at Rome, and the early morning flight to Ibiza had been tiring.

I meet Phillipe, Leo, and Karen the next morning - the Brazilian guy, the Mexican guy, and the Austrian girl, respectively, who are my roommates, and who returned at different times this morning from Space. Ibiza has a number of nightclubs — gigantic in size that boast of being the biggest in the world — and most of them open at midnight, admitting people who love music, drinks, and dance. Clubbing is definitely expensive, and might not be suitable for every palate — for instance, if you are not into hard drugs, you really need to be a mad music lover to pay and get inside the clubs.

Phillipe and Leo, even after a hard night of partying, are up for a trip to Formentera during the day, and we head off to the Figuretas port to catch an Aquabus, a ferry which gets to the island of Formentera from Ibiza in about an hour. Formentera is an unspoilt piece of land amidst the sea, slightly south of Ibiza, which is famous for its numerous pristine beaches and lakes. We rent a bike and pedal our way to Playa de Ses Illetes, a beach on the north coast of the island replete with nude and semi-nude people sunbathing on the clear sands on the shores of crystal clear, perfectly turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Taking our clothes off, we jump into the cold, transparent waters and swim across. Formentera is breathtaking; the beaches are shallow for at least 200-300 meters into the sea, and one can easily wade through the waters to the tiny islands surrounding Formentera when the tide is low. It's definitely a place for the wealthy, though, and the skyline is full of numerous yachts floating in the sea with backdrop of white walls of Ibiza's Platja d'en Bossa beach hotels visible afar. As the evening approaches, we pedal back to La Savina to catch the 5 pm ferry back to Ibiza. On realizing that we still have 30 minutes before departure, we once again jump into the sea near the port itself - this part of the island has rocky beaches and needs a little effort to get a foothold beneath the water on algae covered rocks, but the lack of sand on the shores makes the swim even more enticing.

On getting back at Ibiza, me and Phillipe are interested in catching the sunset from Café del Mar, the iconic bar at Sant Antoni de Portmany, and after a quick shower, manage to catch the 7:30 pm bus to San Antonio on the western coast of the island, a thirty minute ride from Ibiza town. The Sunset Strip consists of numerous western facing cafés apart from Café del Mar, the oldest establishment that started the tradition of playing ambient, balearic music, often called chill-out music during sunset. Every evening, numerous tourists and locals gather on this strip sipping wine and beer in a festive atmosphere of golden sun slanting across the horizon with smooth music playing in the background. Phillipe and I wrap up the evening with a sumptuous dinner and beer, talking about India and Brazil.

The next day I meet Israel Ponce, a Mexican man living in Ibiza since two-and-a-half years building beautiful houses across the island in his profession of being an architect. He has promised me a visit through Ibiza's inland villages — the island's countryside which generally remains unexplored during tourist visits. Deftly mixing his work with my tour, he drives me to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, a village right in the middle of Ibiza where he is building a small house in the hills for one of his clients. The inland villages in Ibiza are quaint and small — each village consisting of a small church, one or two restaurants, and a handful of houses. I take a stroll in the church at Santa Gertrudis, followed by a tea with Israel in the small market plaza opposite to the church. Our next stop is Sant Joan de Labritja, another village in the north of the island, where Israel is working on a grand villa of another client. The beauty of this house in the hills enamors me — spread over several acres of land, this white structure is resplendent in the sun with a perfect design of porticos, gardens, pool, and the house itself. There is a separate area which looked like a place for a barbeque, and I asked Israel the purpose of the same. "To hang clothes for drying in the sun" he responded, and looking at the astonishment on my face implying my lack of comprehension for why this big space at all, he added — "when you own thousand dollar bikinis, you better have a space like this to hang them!"

We drive back to Ibiza town passing through the countryside consisting of pastures, sheep, and numerous trees dotting the hilly landscape, and decide to walk up the Dalt Vila, a historical esplanade which is a world heritage site. Walking up the narrow, winding, steep cobbled streets flanked by Mediterranean style houses, Israel explains a bit about architecture, and the principles behind designing buildings over different ages. The top of Dalt Vila offers wonderful panoramic views of the island and its main port. There are many fine dining restaurants in the main plaza of Dalt Vila, offering romantic candlelit dinners to tourists. Ignoring these expensive destinations, Israel takes me to an interior street in the Ibiza town itself into a traditional restaurant, and I deliciously gorge myself on some mushroom croquettes on his recommendation. The goodness of food for the price I pay makes me regret the expensive salmon I had eaten by the port-side touristy restaurants earlier. We wrap up our meeting after a lengthy conversation on Mexico, India, the house he was building, and the purpose of life — the last topic being the one which generally pops up after alcohol goes into the system of any human being irrespective of which part of the world he / she belongs to!

It's time for me to bid farewell to Ibiza. The anchors have just been retracted, and the ropes unfastened from the port — heavy motors have turned the spindles that just gobbled up the ropes into the hull. The gigantic vessel makes a creaking noise as it pushes against the dock with a start. It's exceptionally quiet at the front deck where I stand to witness this giant of a ship that will carve its way in the Balearic Sea from Ibiza to Barcelona in the next nine hours. The only sound here is that of winds hissing through the ears and flapping the small flag in the front, and a mute rumble of the engines as they churn the ocean underneath. My fears of being sea-sick by the end of this journey are alleviating, as I notice that this vessel is rather stable with non-discernible wobbling, unlike the smaller ferries that I took around the island and to Formentera, impatiently swaying me sideways. As it starts getting colder, I get back inside to explore the rest of the ship. The map tells me I am on Deck 8, on the fourth storey of this five storeyed structure. The bottom two storeys are reserved for cargo, including numerous cars, while the third storey has sleeping cabins. My floor has a restaurant, a cinema, a luggage room, a shopping area, a few slot machines in a casino-ish corner which also has dart boards and a kids' play area, and a number of viewing areas to sit on the sofas and soak-in the vistas of the sea. None of these seem much interesting, and I am vicariously hoping to find a corner at the front somewhere that could be THE point for me, had I been Leo DiCaprio, and had there been a Kate Winslet traveling to Barcelona on this ship. I climb up the next level, which happens to be the top storey of the vessel, and find a swimming pool with people sunbathing by it, a gymnasium, and a bar by the poolside. As I walk to the far end of this floor, I see a long white streak in the ocean behind our ship, as the landmass of Ibiza is fading in the background. The gigantic size of the ship suddenly, and humbly starts appearing small as it delves deeper into the vastness of the ocean beyond. I decide to settle here, grabbing a drink from the bar and sprawling myself on a poolside chair perched up in a corner lit by the sun and peppy music. Barcelona is several hours away, and there is a lot to write in this beautiful spot somewhere in the waters which is unspoilt by GPS coordinates.

Friday, May 16, 2014


The first thing that a solo traveller will notice about Prague is beer. A beer bottle for 29 crowns is cheaper than water, and says a lot about the love of the Czech for their beer.

However, judging this city by its drinking habits and fervent nightlife is probably an injustice to its great Bohemian past. Founded about 1100 years ago, Prague was the seat of Bohemian kings who also ruled as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Considered one of the most charming and beautiful cities in Europe, Prague is dotted with numerous bridges, cathedrals, and churches.

For me, revisiting the city after 9 years is like walking inside a fading memory. With some new friends I met in the train to Praha, I walk back to the historic Charles Bridge on the Vltava River — named after the 14th Century emperor Charles IV, who personally designed most of the medieval quarters of the city that have inspired countless artists over the ages.

Fortunately, Prague remained largely undamaged during the World Wars, and its cobbled streets replete with walled courtyards and gold-tipped towers proudly reflect its enviable Gothic charm to this day. We continue our walk towards the majestic 9th century castle, and pass by the Old Town Square, where the Prague Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall installed in 1410 is still working, and announces the time with its own magical parade of apostles and a bell-ringing skeleton every hour. Looking at a bird's eyeview of the city from the castle, I recount the words of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka who probably gained inspiration from this beautiful skyline.

"And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition."

Today, Prague is a modern and vibrant city full of energy, music, cultural art, fine dining, and nightlife that can cater to the burgeoning tourist influx. Drinking through the night to modern music and numerous people in a rather unknown pub in a basement with unplastered walls and extreme graffiti, I reminisce on my fortune of being here a second time. In the same lifetime.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Doe gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg.
(Just act normally, that's crazy enough.)
- Dutch saying

Amsterdam is a quintessential Dutch city – a small historical town with a rustic charm. There is a lot in Amsterdam that might not appear normal at first, but once you start pedaling your bicycle in its numerous narrow streets by the canals and waterways, the city unfolds its secrets one-by-one and doesn't take very long to absorb you as a local. Here, pretty much similar to the rest of Netherlands, you won't find those luxury cars that roll their way through wealthy European towns – Amsterdam is limited to standard BMWs or Benzs, and is proud commuting on its bicycles. There is no glamour or glitter of big money, and the city itself is quite small – a characteristic feature of the land of the Dutch. Entire Netherlands has a number of small urban communities, rather than large metropolises like Paris, Berlin, New York or Tokyo. If Amsterdam is the destination for arts, the national government and the parliament are in the Hague, the broadcasting media is in Hilversum, the world's largest port is in Rotterdam, and all major conferences and large-scale events are held at Utrecht.

The first thing one notices about Amsterdam is what, according to folklore, a Brazilian had told his daughter who had moved to the city – "You should not stay here, the sky is too low." And remarkably so – the land throughout the city is extremely flat, shedding some light on the interesting topography of about one-third of Netherlands. It's said that the God created Heaven and Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. The reference is to the ingenuity of the Dutch in hydraulic engineering, leading to what is often termed as 'living on land that has been snatched from the sea'. Majority of the country lives on marshy land, sometimes even below the mean sea level, protected from the sea by elaborately planned dunes and dykes constructed ages ago. After the Middle Ages, the country saw the advent of wind mills – an invention from the Islamic world. These windmills were used to drain out excess water from low-lying areas which were protected by the dykes, and to keep them dry. Several windmills were often linked together in parallel for deriving more power – some of these are still seen at Kinderdijk (near Rotterdam) – a visual treat for window seat passengers in the flights landing at Schiphol. Since the nineteenth century, the windmills have gradually been replaced by pumps, but the basic principle remains the same.

Amsterdam is built on a marshy meadowland surrounded by lakes and riddled by waterways and canals that were mostly constructed in the 17th century. My host at Amsterdam is Ramón Ster, a thorough-bred media professional who is the most hospitable person I have ever met. Ramon's apartment is one of the typical Dutch dwellings that take pride upon the idea conveyed by a local saying – Over Smaak valt niet te twisten, meaning "there's no accounting for taste." Like other apartments in the neighbourhood, this house is also full of bric-à-brac, has minimal, but solid oak furniture, and numerous lights. Roaming around in the city, one can notice the Dutch characteristic of having living room windows and doors made of glass facing the roads – showcasing the lives and tastes of their inhabitants. We are living in an area called the Oud-West, which Ramón says is about 4.5 meters below sea level – protected by schutsluis, or water-locks made as part of the Delta Project.

Spending some time in the city, one quickly gets attuned to the Dutch way of life marked by clear agreements and firm commitments. The Dutch are perfect with time management – the accuracy of trains and buses to the second is surprising at first, but as a book on Dutch culture in Ramón's library says, firm commitments have become second nature in a country where decision-making is always a compromise between equal partners and where you have to be able to rely on each other if the water level rises too high. Apparently, the reference is to the fundamental tenet of cooperation which evolved this society into fighting the gigantic forces of nature together.

My days in Amsterdam are limited, and Ramón gives me a 15 minute crash-course on the parks, museums, food places, and cycling areas that can be explored. Cycling is a way of life in the city, and all streets have earmarked cycle tracks replete with dedicated signalling systems for two-wheeler traffic. I take some time adjusting to Ramón's guest bicycle with its pedal brakes, but quickly realize that there is no better way to be in Amsterdam than being on two wheels. Ramón does pass on a word of caution though – it's tough to find vacant bicycle parking posts in prominent areas, and not parking in designated spots might lead to them being stolen; the statistics of stolen bikes in Amsterdam is staggering.

Armed with a bicycle, I spend a day visiting the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. The Van Gogh Museum has the world's greatest collection of Van Gogh's masterpieces, including the Sunflower and the Bedroom, and presents a great story of the painter's short, ten year career in arts. It also has a section on paints and tools used by artists over the ages, and an intriguing section on modern technologies being used to analyze works of art from two centuries ago. The Stedelijk is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design, and also houses the Beanery – a three-dimensional collage created by Edward Kienholz in which visitors can enter. My favorite museum ends up being the Rijks Museum that I visit the next day. Re-opened last year after 10 years of renovation, it showcases 800 years of Dutch culture, as well as the works of Rembrandt – including his masterpieces the Night Watch, and the Milkmaid. On one of the days, I also visit the Anne Frank House – a poignant reminder of the two years spent by the Frank family in hiding where the diaries of Anne Frank were written before the Nazis raided the house.

Apart from its museums, Amserdam has some great areas to walk around, such as the Vondelpark and the Westerdoks, or the Veemkade – a pleasant street by the river IJ. In addition to a number of squares and market places where locals and tourists hang out for food and drinks, Amsterdam also boasts of the infamous Red Light District, a set of prominent streets in the heart of the city where sex, sleaze, and drugs flow uninhibited, and are almost celebrated. Prostitution is legal here, and so is cannabis – a feature which probably attracts numerous tourists from all over the world for indulgence. Walking around the district, one can witness scantily clad women standing behind the typical Dutch house windows, looking for their next visitors. Ramón tells me about the trafficking issue as well – similar to any other prostitution market in the world, this market also has a number of women forced into the flesh trade, and it's extremely difficult for the authorities to differentiate between women who are willingly into the trade and the ones who have been trafficked and threateningly silenced. The market itself is lively with the cheerful bars and coffee shops where a pure weed joint can be ordered for about 8, enough to knock one out for hours. The area is, contrary to intuition, not male dominated at all, and women stroll around in the evenings in equal numbers, roaming through the lively streets and indulging in the intoxication on offer. Damark Street even has a sex museum, replete with the history of this oldest act of mankind, artifacts and objects with erotic engravings excavated from various historic sites, and a history of pornographic literature and cinema.

However, the best parts of Amsterdam lie away from the hustle-bustle and the sleaze that take the largest mindshare when thinking about this city. Walking on the peaceful streets by the canal, Prinsengracht being my favorite, could be more enlivening to the soul than anything else. Amsterdam is the place that inspired numerous artists and creative minds, and understanding them requires understanding the Dutch way of life – of constant, friendly social interaction or the 'gezelligheid,' something that can be taken as a souvenir back home.

Amsterdam is a city of beauty and art, simplicity and taste, love and life, and is concluded best by another Dutch poem I located in Ramón's library -

"I wish my life to be grand and dramatic
But not today. I think I'll wait a while."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Norway – A Pilgrimage to Nature

Sticking out as a rather imposing and easily identifiable landmass in the northern hemisphere on a world map is the amazing country of Norway – a land so pristine and one with nature that it almost makes it impossible to believe that vikings once made this place their home. The hinterlands of the country are a jigsaw of various elements combined into one – earth, air, and water – coexisting with humans who have lived here since time immemorial. Its fjords – those magnificent land formations caused by the sea making inroads into the mainlands all over, offer delectable sights of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and forests, interspersed with long tunnels, wooden cottages, green pastures, and slow, peaceful lives of humans who built them. The fjords were carved by glaciers during the ice ages. They started as small cracks in the mountains which ice and water gradually gouged out, and they became deep enough to come in contact with the outside sea.

My journey from the port city of Bergen in Western Norway to the city of Voss on the scenic local train run by NSB takes me through Osterfjord – a fjord surrounding the island of Osterøy, Northern Europe's biggest inland island. The train crosses several villages, such as Dale, the house of famous Dale Fabrikkar knitwear factory, and Bolstadøyri, the village where Osterfjord ends and moving further east, gives way to only fresh-water rivers and lakes. Bolstad has a history of being a trading post – before the railways came, Bergen to Voss journey on boats and horses started at this place. The train climbs up the valleys from Bolstad into several tunnels carved into the mountains towards Upsete and Myrdal. It also crosses the Vossavassdraget river system – a regulated and conserved ecological system consisting of three rivers, some of which are known for their great salmon population. Further up is the town of Evanger, a place known for its production of cured meat from various animals. The train comes to a halt at Voss, one of the biggest municipalities in the Hordaland County, and one of the most important tourist and skiing destinations.

From Voss, I take a bus to Gudvangen, a steep descent down from the mountains to the head of the Nærøyfjord – a World Heritage Site which is the narrowest and the best known arm of Sognefjord. The bus to Gudvangen climbs down a 20% steep gradient from Stalheim, a farm area that sits atop the end of the Nærøydalen valley which is famous for its location atop an almost vertical cliff. The steep gradient stretch of Stalheimskleiva ensures that this road is open to traffic only one way – downwards. This road has numerous hairpin bends with scenic views of the valley and numerous waterfalls, and used to be the mainstay for traffic between Oslo and Bergen after it was built in the mid-nineteenth century. With the opening up of the railway and several road tunnels, this stretch now opens one-way only in summers and is usually frequented by tourist traffic. From Stalheim to the fjord along the entire length of the Nærøydalen valley flows the river Nærøyelva, also known for its great stock of salmon. The beautiful waterfall of Kjelsfossen high above Gudvangen on the south-eastern side of the valley comes into view a little later. It is said that drinking the fresh waters of this waterfall increases the human lifespan – the driver of our bus chuckles that he is already 150 years old, and probably a ghost. We finally arrive at Gudvangen, a small village in the Aurland Municipality consisting of just 120 people.

I take a ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm, a journey through the narrow Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord offering some dramatic and spectacular scenery. On the way are small villages and hamlets on both sides along the coast, such as that of Bakka, Styvi, Dyrdal, and Stigen. The village of Undredal on the western shore of the fjord that inhabits about 100 people, comes into view. This village also houses the Undredal church, the smallest "stave church" in Scandinavia built in 1147, visible to us as a small white hut in the center of the village. The ferry edges its way through more such hamlets, accompanied throughout its journey by noisy seagulls trying to grab pieces of bread and other food thrown by people on the deck. The winds can get strong, and add a handsome chill to the summer sun – sometimes it does get very cold to even stay on the front deck. I jealously peek into the captain's den – a wonderful glasshouse on the top where two gentlemen are comfortably sitting sipping on a cup of coffee, observing the scenic cruising path through their sunglasses. One of the best jobs on this earth, I must add!

The ferry docks at Flåm, a beautiful village of roughly 400 people, known specifically as a popular cruise harbour during summers. It became a tourist destination sometime during the end of the 19th century, when British "salmon lords"  came to fish in the rivers here. I have around two hours in Flåm, before taking the Flåmsbana to Myrdal, and I decide to go by the recommendations of a local storekeeper on utilizing my time. The guy has convinced me for a two hour roundtrip hike to the Brekkefossen waterfalls – a risky proposition for a very limited stay. The hike up Brekkefossen is an extremely steep climb up the fjord face through a rough and rocky terrain and isn't an easy thing to attempt wearing loafers and trousers. However, the majestic view of the waterfall itself, together with the magnificent vistas of farmland and huts of the village including the Flåm church of 1668 below make this climb totally worthwhile.

From Flåm, I take the famous Flåmsbana, the Flåm-Myrdal railway which is considered a masterpiece of engineering. The train climbs from 2 meters above MSL (Flåm) to 866 meters above MSL (Myrdal) with a gradient of 1 in 18, the steepest normal gauge line in Northern Europe. Completed over 20 years in the year 1944, the train passes through 20 tunnels in its one hour of journey from the wild and beautiful Flåm valley to the high-mountain plateau of Myrdal. Eighteen of these tunnels were built by hand, including the hairpin tunnel – a tunnel which makes a 180 degrees turn inside the mountains itself. The longest tunnel in the line is the Nåli tunnel running to almost 1.4 kilometers. The train also stops at several hamlets along the way, including a station by the Kjosfossen waterfall, the one I visited earlier during the bus journey from Voss to Gudvangen, albeit at a much lower altitude. The train platform is at about 670 meters above MSL right next to the 94 meters high waterfall, and is a magnificent site for tourists' selfies. Further up after Kjosfossen, there is a fantastic view of the oppoite side of the valley showing three different levels of Flåmsbana up the mountainside, the train itself being on the fourth level. The scenery also shows the Rallarvegen, or the Navvies' Road, pasted like a ribbon on the mountain face. It's a twisting and turning road with twenty one bends all the way up to Myrdal that was used during the construction of the Bergen Railway.

The Flåmsbana journey ends at Myrdal, from where I take the main Bergen Railway back to Bergen with its own scenic views of the countryside along the way.

Visiting Norway is a pilgrimage to the nature at its best. It's a country where the conquest between man and nature seems to have neutralized into a trance-like beauty. The humans here haven't encroached upon the majestic, beyond humbly registering their mere presence, and the nature has offered its  unadulterated treats in full glory along the colourful land and waterways and snow-capped peaks throughout the countryside. One word which could sum up the feeling of being here? It's Takk!

Friday, May 09, 2014

Bergen – The City of Seven Mountains

Straight from the blistering 42 degrees May heat of New Delhi, landing at Oslo several latitudes up on the globe can cause a steep, unexpected drop in mercury levels of those old thermometers of yore which used to signal something drastically different not necessarily for bad reasons though.

The wind outside the Oslo airport from where I need to take a train to Oslo Sentralstasjon is predictably chilly for my Delhi skin, and there seems to be a nip in the air exacerbating the effect. I am not well prepared for this climate a voice in the brain tells me, evaluating the contents of the small backpack which is the only luggage I have. I am on my way to Bergen, a 6 hour ride from Oslo on the Bergen Railway that runs from Oslo to the Western Coast of Norway, crossing the Langfjellene mountains and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.

After spending 5-6 hours in downtown Oslo shivering through its most popular attractions and getting the usual tourist clicks at the Royal Palace and the Vigeland Park, I am ready to ride the Bergen Railway arguably one of the most scenic train routes on the planet. Completed in 1909, this 500 kilometers line is Northern Europe's highest stretch of railway with almost 100 kilometers of tracks running through the wild mountain country. The train crosses several areas of open countryside, wooded valleys, lakes, and snow-capped mountains to reach the western fjords of Norway. The route also passes through Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (1222 meters above MSL) located above the ridge of Hardangervidda. Between Finse and Myrdal, the train runs atop a relatively flat mountain-plateau covered with thick snow even at this time of the year a treat for the eyes. The Bergen Railway route is known for its several tunnels dug through the mountains, the longest of which is more than 5 kilometers in length (the Gravhalstunnel).

Soaking in the the artistic beauty of the countryside all through the train journey, I get into Bergen a city surrounded by many mountains whose numbers is arguable. It is Norway's second largest city and even served as Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. The old name for Bergen was Bjørgvin, meaning 'the meadow among the mountains'. It was one of the trading posts (kontors) founded by North German merchants (Hanseatic merchants) who traded in cod and stokfish with fishermen from northern Norway in the 13th century. The area of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, is a medieval style reconstruction of the old warehouses used centuries ago by the Hanseatic merchants. The city has seen numerous fires and in one of them in 1702, almost entire Bergen burned. Most of the old buildings of Bergen, including Bryggen, were rebuilt after the fire. The area around Bryggen is a lovely walk in the evening, offering great views of the numerous yachts and cruises parked along the bay. There's a small market on the harbour that sells local culinary preparations of the day's catch the prices, however, like the rest of Norway, could be steep for what's on offer.

Another must-do on the list in Bergen is the hike up to Fløyen, a plateau in the mountain massif north-east of the city center offering some great views of the city. It is also served by a funicular (Fløibanen); however, it's advisable to take it only one way, and walk down the other way through the numerous alleys and beautiful hillside houses of the city. The view up at Fløyen is magnificent on a clear day such as the one coinciding with my trip, the top offers a bird's eye view of the main fjord. Bergen could be notorious about weather, though; clear sunny days switch to rains in less than 10 minutes (it rains almost 260 days a year in Bergen), and not carrying an umbrella or a poncho could lead to scampering into the souvenir shops. The sunlight itself during summers is generous it's a treat to visit these areas in the summer having almost 18-20 hours of daylight.

My host at Bergen is Eugene, a student from Belarus working towards his Masters degree in computer algorithms at the local University. The city has numerous student accommodations, the biggest one being at Fantoft a suburban locality to the south of Bergen served by the city's modern tram called Bergen Light Rail (Bybanen). I meet Eugene in his hostel room at Fantoft, and amongst other things, learn about one of the quaint urban traditions of the students here "diving."  About once a week, Eugene and his friends (all postgraduate students) leave on foot or bicycles at about 11 in the night to various supermarkets, grocery chains and other food stores, scourge the trash of the day, and rescue eatables. It might sound repulsive at first, but considering how easily the supermarkets throw away stuff, it becomes increasingly easier to "digest" the novelty of this method. Most of the bigger chains discard food which do not conform to the highest levels of quality checks a little mark in the skin of fruits, just day old packs of bread, coffee and packed groceries with damaged packaging due to manhandling, several products which are nearing their stated expiration dates strict Norwegian laws constraint the chains to give-away these items directly as charity lest someone sues them for feeding stuff gone bad, and it's always easier to just trash them. The rescued food is distributed amongst the gang, and students wash and store them for consumption over the next few days. Eugene tells me he hasn't bought any food except oil over the last several months. The process also makes him a great experimenting cook based on what he finds after a dive, he generally tries to cook something out of it. During the night, we try to make a pancake from some bananas, chocolate milk, and semolina, all 'dived' during the previous week! Eugene introduces me to Stephan Micus' music, a music so beautiful that it seems to reflect the beauty and magnificence of the world outside the hostel windows. I am lost in the thoughts of exploring a bit of Norwegian countryside from Bergen, and Eugene's experienced hands over the Jew's Harp produce a beautiful trance music at this midnight hour curing me of the tiredness of day's walking and putting me to sleep.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Where the mind is without fear

In these darkest hours of my existence in the middle of this melancholic night, when the rain outside befalls the putrid leftovers of last winter's undergrowth, when an eerie ominous noise of acidic precipitation seems to have engulfed the rest of sleeping humanity, when the baffled pigeons knock themselves against cold windowpanes and street dogs occasionally bark and break the suspended dreams of this neighborhood, when the mind grapples with despair and the lungs puff out stale, polluted air with monotonous effort, my heart sees a faint, distant hope.

And it whispers, in those secretive ways of the heart which only hearts understand: let there be light. And the door of the refrigerator opens.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Another Boeing 737, on its way into the Tribhuvan International Airport, hovers in the clouds, playing hide and seek above the bowl-shaped valley enclosed in mountains. Flying on a clear summer day like this, when the streams are all dry, one can witness the numerous meanderings of countless serpentine rivers which spawn this part of the Himalayan foothills. There are so many of these yellow ochre patterns on earth, that it seems like the hands of some creative yarn dyer have carelessly thrown bits and pieces of silk threads on a green canvas. As if complimenting these natural designs, almost all of these hills are lined by man-made earthen roads moving up in elliptical paths to the mountain tops – those small, flat patches of land with tiny wooden houses surrounded by terrace cultivations of the local crop.

Stepping out of the airport and driving a little bit into the city, one is greeted at once by the noise and pollution of a thriving, but rickety metropolis – a city which is thousands of years old, which has almost been kept preserved by the hills all around, and which now seems crumbling with the weight of a teeming populace, haphazard new construction, bustling number of motored vehicles, and an ever increasing commercial activity. The numerous old monuments, monasteries, temples and trekking paradise around the valley serve as an attractive beehive for tourists all over the globe, and keep the city alive despite all the mayhem mostly due to the lack of effective governance. My cab driver, an old man driving a 30 year old rickety Toyota, laments about the days when the kings used to rule, and everything was much better. The reference undoubtedly is to the period before 2001's infamous regicide, after which the Maoist insurgency found a new foothold in the kingdom, slowly leading to a complete abolition of monarchy in Nepal a few years later. Discounting for the nostalgia-driven exaggeration of 'good-old days' by this man, I could still notice that the capital of this beautiful nation could well, have done better!

My sleepover for the night is going to be in a budget hotel in Chhetrapati, Thamel – an old part of town which boasts of the iconic Durbar Square, a UNESCO Heritage Site housing the Kasthamandap temple after which this city is named. The Square is surrounded by palaces of old rulers, courtyards and temples; and is a vivid concoction of what is called the Newari architectural style – structures with elaborate carvings, delicate paintings, and low, narrow doors and pathways. Durbar Square is also a busy local market today, with tiny vegetable shops and numerous snack places selling momos, fish, and other local delicacies. It is thronged by tourists, considering it is probably the best way to soak-in the hyper-activity of people, animals, motorbikes and vendors in this world – sitting on a place high atop one of the temple stairs and sipping the local tea. I'm here on the day of Seto Machhindranath jatra, a chariot procession by the ethnic Newar community to please the God of rain, and I also get to witness countless devotees moving through the Square dancing on drum beats.

More than 80% of Nepalis are Hindus, followed by the Buddhists and other communities. Situated on the eastern part of Kathmandu is the the temple of Lord Pashupatinath, one of the most auspicious Hindu temples in world. Its current pagoda-style main structure was built in the 17th century, but the temple itself dates back to more than two thousand years. As I enter the Pashupatinath compound, I am greeted by a not-so-pleasant sign – "Only Hindus allowed inside the temple premises." The compound is thronged by believers, and houses numerous small temples other than the central structure lined in gold and silver. Towards the back of the compound flows a small stream of river Bagmati, the banks of which also serve as a cremation ground. This mystical sight presents a beautiful philosophical quagmire – inside the four walls of the compound are thousands of men and women praying for their health and a long, happy life; while outside lies the ground extinguishing minds and bodies and physical forms into flames.

Another to-be-checked tourist attraction, the Boudha Stupa lies just a few miles north of the Pashupatinath temple. Built around fifteen hundred years ago, this is a tall structure symbolic of peace. The Stupa has the characteristic Buddhist prayer wheels on its entire periphery. It is believed that rotating these wheels is equivalent to reciting the six syllable Sanskrit mantra carved on them in Tibetan – "Om mani padme hum," roughly meaning "May I achieve purity, compassion, and wisdom." It is surrounded by small shops selling artifacts and other souvenirs causing quite a hustle-bustle, which seems a little uncharacteristic for a Buddhist structure – reducing it from a monument of tranquility and peace, to a largely commercial hobnob.

Getting around Kathmandu isn't very easy – the local taxis are generally expensive for the distance they travel and mostly do not use meters. The city itself has very narrow, rough, and often hilly roads leading to frequent traffic snarls. My next destination is Swayambhunath situated in the far west of the valley, right across the city from where I am – a long, drowsy ride away. My last meal was quite a while ago – an early lunch of traditional daal-bhaat-tarkaari, or the assortment of rice, pulses and vegetable curry which forms the staple twice-a-day meal of the Nepalese people. Before climbing up the stairs of Swayambhunath, I subside a little of my evening hunger pangs through 'chatpati', a spicy concoction made of puffed rice and a few other ingredients.

Swayambhu, the Monkey Temple, is an ancient complex housing stupa, temples and monasteries from an erstwhile era. Being at the top of a mountain, it also serves as an excellent viewpoint to witness the sprawling Kathmandu valley. In contrast to the Boudha Stupa, Swayambhu is markedly peaceful, and does not have 'hard-selling' stores looking out for travelers. Lighting one of the ghee lamps near the shrines could be an elevating experience, truly enlivening one's spirits. Inside the Dongak Chhyoling Old Monastery, I find hundreds of these lamps being lit up, rendering a rather mystic touch to the whole setting. Witnessing the small monks at the monastery give an indication of the stunningly simple pace of life in these pockets of culture, and more than justifies the occasional escape from rather mundane, fast-paced existence of the 'modern' world.

After a tiring day spent in this gateway to Nepal, I settle for a relaxed meal of Thupka and Momos in a small, cozy restaurant in the Thamel marketplace. Tomorrow is going to be another day of surprises and discoveries in this small, landlocked nation which owns the Himalayas.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Magician

"Dhyaan dibin dada, mayjik dakhabo!" - shouts the boy in an attempt to attract attention.

The second class air conditioned chair car feels a bit too cold in these winter temperatures. The train had left Calcutta a little over 30 minutes ago, and is chugging westwards into the mainland. The people - mostly sleepy, induced by a post lunch departure time and the last 30 minutes of train's sweet lullaby - are well sprawled into their seats with backs pushed as far back as possible. For most of them, this is meant to be a 4 hours of journey to meet their loved ones during the upcoming festivities.

Some of them look up with a faint, vague sort of interest at this teenage boy who has just announced his arrival. Old tattered shirt with faded broad check prints, a pair of grey jeans rugged through years of constant use, old but prominent sneakers which might have been discarded by someone after they had lost their prime, and a tattered black bag made of cheap rexine and cotton - the boy's appearance, in both form and expression, bears no resemblance to a magician. The only extra item he has added to his decor is a silk handkerchief tied near his jeans pockets - an odd piece of cloth hung there probably to provide a semblance of oddity, if nothing more; so that he doesn't pass off as just another kid selling magazines or tea or spiced puffed-rice popular in these areas.

He must have taken a calculated risk in entering this reserved coach - the ticket checker, after doing his job within the first 30 minutes of train departure shouldn't be returning anytime soon, and the next station is at least another 60 minutes away - he shouldn't be thrown out prematurely, before he has demonstrated his magic, and collected some coins from those who shall spare any change.

He starts with simple tricks which are sold to curious kids in numerous fun-fairs organized in various parts of the country during celebratory days of the Goddess Durga or the Lord Ganesha - the ones where yellow feathers turn red and blue after being wrapped up in a newspaper, or a rope keeps taut even when held up, or things disappear in small velvet bags with round openings. His incessant narration of what's next up his sleeves is so well rehearsed with overuse, and hence so monotonous, that it has lost the sense of surprise normally associated with this art. The newspaper he uses seems shredded with excessively repeated demonstrations across different trains, the rope has smudge marks all over due to persistent rubbing of his rough, dirty hands, and the velvet has almost lost its sheen and furs, displaying marks of age and tolerance. His small bag is the repository of all this material useful for the performances - bloated with the numerous objects and torn at corners, the bag looks too old to bear this weight beyond a few more months. 

He moves on to probably his harder tricks. A bottle of coke comes out of the bag and is placed in a hollow wooden tube. A few 'leaves' made of the glossy, confetti material paper cut into flowery shapes have been woven into rings, and many such rings are combined into sort of a shining, almost gaudy bouquet of red, blue and green coloured paper; but with too many folds and crumples marked across it. This bouquet is used to cover the tube, and after a flipping into the air, the beverage bottle disappears from inside the tube.

As the boy places his bouquet back into the bag, he is stopped by a man who holds his hand and says - "show that to me!" The boy seems a little petrified at first - the expressions on the man's face are serious, sort of petulant, and his voice has both a commanding, as well as a winning tone. The boy hurries, and his hands seem shaky now - with trembling fingers he pushes the bouquet and other stuff into the non-accepting bag faster, and responds timidly - "after a while, when I'm done I will." The man doesn't seem discouraged and persists - "no, I want to see that now," and the boy repeats his line. The air around the boy seems uncomfortable now, probably he has already self-accused, and self-sentenced himself for this 'cheating' which was almost caught. The man's face is grim, mixed with a slight hint of arrogant satisfaction.

The boy has either ended his performance, or has decided to end it prematurely - one can't be too sure - and walks down the aisle asking for "dada, puroskaar kichhu". He tries to be fast, unsure of himself. After a few coins and currency notes have been spared in the next few seconds, he quickly takes his bag and moves to the next compartment, without looking back.

He had dropped one of his shiny paper rings on the floor, red in colour - probably in the haste of shoving them in his bag.

When the train stops at the next station, activity resumes in the so far lull train compartment. Sleepy people are awake - some of them get down to buy their evening snacks and get bottles of water, or just to stretch themselves. There is a fresh breath of air inside the cold compartment with the opening and closing of doors. People walk in the aisles, and the boy's paper ring slowly gets pushed to a corner near the door, after being tromped by many shoes.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Dance of Democracy

The entire stretch of Asaf Ali Road between Kamla Market and Daryaganj is dotted with people in pink turbans. Clad mostly in kurtas and dhotis, this mass of humanity is almost continuous – it's difficult to discern individual pieces in that seemingly aimless flow. For a change, vehicles are lined on both sides of the road; pompously displaying their red beacons, VVIP signages, and occasional sirens and pressure horns helping them crawl; and the teeming populace occupies the center stage – rustling and bustling against each other, most of them also have their packed bags with them. Toting a camera, and donning a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt, I might easily be overlooked as a journalist hungry for a bite in the evening editions.

Amidst the jostling crowd, occasionally I pass through groups of men of probably higher importance than others – the ones who are also carrying placards about the maha-rally today – a show of strength by the nation's ruling party. That's when I also notice that all the walls around, the ones still visible through the sea of people, have posters asking people to gather in large numbers at the Ramlila Grounds for the vishal jan-sabha.

This crowd is largely composed of farmers sourced from nearby states, as is apparent from their accent and travel bags. Smoking beedis, and occasionally marijuana, every individual seems engrossed with his own little world composed of friends from the same village, but still very much a part of the troupe. Most of them would've come here because they would have had nothing better to do in their villages anyway, or would have been promised an afternoon meal. They probably wouldn't know why they are here either, except for the fact that they would get to watch and listen to the powerful people who appear on TV channels regularly – they would also run a stampede to touch these 'celebrities' by hand, or just get a view up close, without knowing the reason why they are doing so.

There are two Indias. This is the India which breathes. And that's the only resource which it consumes more than the first India (one could argue about land, but without data to substantiate, it can still be safely presumed that in terms of real value, it does not). This is the India which comes only in statistics, the one which is classified and reclassified with different measures of dispersions, which is calculated by econometrics and humanities, but is somehow hidden out of view despite its size. This India is incomprehensible by the first India – the one which shines; whose claim to fame, the IT industry, consists of about 30-90 lakh people, depending on who is counting. Agriculture employs 25 crore people – that's about 25-80 times of everyone in IT – a magnitude which simply can't be comprehended in terms of real people.

Eight months ago, the Planning Commission lowered India's poverty line, in an attempt to better identify the poorest of the poor. That number stands at about 35 crore people – on an average, half of them are sleeping tonight without any food during the day. That number is incomprehensible in magnitude too – in our India, we don't 'see' it. It oozes out inconveniently, like purulence from festered wounds, at traffic signals and railway stations and sometimes, most inconveniently, in temples and mosques and churches. There are numerous more stats – on hunger, on poverty, on unemployment, on malnutrition, on quality of life, on urabanization, on slums, on diseases, on drinking water, even on manual scavenging (2 crore people live solely by cleaning excreta). That India is a huge swarm – the one which cannot think about Solon, Draco or Plato's works on democracy, the one which does not have time for education, and for which 'demanding rights' is an alien concept. It bothers about survival.

The first India, on the other hand, attends offices, reads papers, has an online presence, uses resources, and frets about city traffic. This is the India which might know the GDP stats, cry foul about Rs. 32 poverty line, but would largely be unaware of which five-year plan the country is running in. This is the India which feels disgusted at the classes in power, which hates bureaucracy, which even discusses the national issues in forums and conferences and blogs, occasionally rises up behind people like Kejriwal to do its bit for the country, and forms a sympathetic opinion of the second India through the lenses of camera channels or bollywood movies – as far as they realistically go.

The second India votes – for money, or food, or alcohol, or caste, or just because it wants to be alive. The first India votes too, without reading party manifestos, maybe in much lower percentages, which becomes further insignificant because of its size. Amidst this classic divide, the dance of democracy comes alive in full view – obscenely flashing itself from altars in Ramlila Grounds – persisting through decades by keeping the second India just the way it is, denying it with everything, and balancing off its destitution with belied human hopes in smooth murderous perfection.

I wriggle myself out of this sea, walk past the Delite Cinema towards my destination, the Daryaganj Sunday book market, and find the footpaths empty. "Aaj baazaar nahi laga hai sir, rally hai na," a paanwala informs me. Realizing the relative importance of the two things, I get back home.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


राजधानी दिल्ली में हमारा आगमन जीवन के उस पड़ाव पर हुआ, जिसकी व्याख्या "अनिश्चितकाल" नामक संज्ञा देकर मोटे तौर पर की जा सकती है। और मोटे तौर पर अगर कुछ भी सिद्ध हो सकता हो, तो हमारे देश की प्राचीन परम्परानुसार उसकी वैधता, बिना हो-हल्ला मचाये, किसी भी वैज्ञानिक प्रयोग से अधिक मानी जानी चाहिये। मसलन ‒ भगवान एक है और उसके रूप अनेक, कर्म के हिसाब से जीवनोपरांत स्वर्ग और नरक मिलते हैं, सबसे बड़ा रुपइया ‒ ये सब कुछ मोटे तौर पर सिद्ध किये जा सकने वाले भाववाचक सिद्धांत हैं, और इसलिये इनका प्रयोग किसी भी बुद्धिजीवी परिचर्चा में बेहिचक करना पूर्णतः वैध है।

ख़ैर। हमारे जीवन का अनिश्चित पड़ाव इसलिये, क्यूँकि विशिष्ट रूप से इस पड़ाव पर अतीत, भविष्य, और उमर ‒ तीनों अनिश्चित होते हैं। जिस प्रकार उच्चतर शिक्षा के कुपोषण के शिकार किसी भी दर्दनाक अतीत को अँग्रेज़ी व्याकरण के क्लिष्ट शब्दों से चेपकर गरिमामय और रंगीन बनाया जा सकता है, उसी प्रकार किसी सड़ियल कोने में झख मार रहे वर्तमान पर चमकीला लेप लगा कर सुनहरे भविष्य का प्रचार आराम से किया जा सकता है। और इन दोनों अनिश्चितताओं के बीच उमर भी ५-१० साल इधर-उधर खिसककर, थोड़ी-बहुत अनिश्चितता और फ़ेसबुक पर लगे दार्शनिक चित्रों के बनिस्पत मोटे तौर पर एक छोटी सँख्या पर आकर अपरिहार्य कारणों से स्थगित हो जाती है।

इन सबके बीच, अपने अनिश्चितवें जन्मदिवस पर खा-पीकर डकार लेने के कुछ ही दिनों बाद हमने परदादाओं के ज़माने की कहावत "नौकरी हो तो सरकारी, नहीं तो बेचो तरकारी" को चरितार्थ करने का बीड़ा उठाया, और इसी उद्देश्य से निज़ामों की सुशिष्ट नगरी हैदराबाद छोड़कर राष्ट्रीय राजधानी क्षेत्र की ओर निकल पड़े। यहाँ की अक्खड़ वास्तविकता से हमारा आमना-सामना सबसे पहले गुड़गाँव में तब हुआ, जब हमने ट्रांसपोर्ट की ट्रकों पर भारतीय राजमार्गों से जूझकर लायी गयी अपनी चरचकिया गाड़ी को चलाकर घर लाने का प्रयास किया।

स्पष्ट है कि गुरू द्रोणाचार्य ने जब यहाँ गुरू-ग्राम (भूतपूर्व गुड़गाँव) की स्थापना की, तो जीवन-यापन के कुछ मूलभूत सिद्धांत भी छोड़े, जैसे अकूट प्रतिस्पर्धा, अनुशासन, शिष्टाचार, इत्यादि। इस क्षेत्र की प्रतिस्पर्धात्मक संस्कृति का थोड़ा-बहुत बोध वाहन चालन में होने वाली वर्चस्व की लड़ाई से किया जा सकता है। कभी पीछे न हटने की इस परम्परा के बीच शिष्टाचार के नाते प्रयोग किये जाने वाले माँओं और बहनों संबंधित प्रतीकात्मक शब्द अनुशासन बनाये रखने में सहायक हैं। धड़ल्ले से हॉर्न बजाकर चिल्ल-पौं से सुसज्जित किये गये इस माहौल में एक अलग ही भारत की पहचान छुपी है जिसका वर्णन दर्शनशास्त्र की किसी थ्योरी से शायद मोटे तौर पर किया जा सके।

धूल मिट्टी के रोमांचक कोहरे और शरद ऋतु के तपते सूरज के बीच वाहन चालन में हमें भूमि से जुड़े होने की सुखद अनुभूति प्राप्त हुई। इसी बीच सड़क की दाहिनी ओर निश्चिंतता से खड़ी, सम्भवतः इसी सुख को मध्यरात्रि के अलाव की तरह सेंकती हुई एक गाड़ी का पिछला दरवाज़ा जम्हाई की तरह खुला, और हमारे पीछे देखने के प्रयोग में आने वाले शीशे पर प्राणघातक तमाचा जड़ गया। दरवाज़े से एक अधेड़ उम्र की महिला अवतरित हुईं, और सामने से एक श्रीमान। हमारे पास आकर गम्भीर मुद्रा में बोले ‒ "सौरी, हम-लोग यहीं रहते हैं और रोज़ ही इस टाईम पर आते हैं। जॅनरली इधर कोई गाड़ी नहीं आती, इसलिये पीछे देखा नहीं।" विदित है कि यहाँ के प्रतिस्पर्धात्मक सांस्कृतिक परिप्रेक्ष्य में इस प्रकार का मनुहारी संवाद केवल अतिथि सत्कार के लिये सुरक्षित है, और इसलिये मोटे तौर पर इस घटना को स्थानीय निवासियों की सहिष्णुता का परिचायक माना जा सकता है।

सेक्टर चालीस नामक इस मुहल्ले में हमारा डेरा श्री एवँ श्रीमति सिंह के घर जमा। श्री सिंह ‒ बड़े ही सज्जन आदमी ‒ "कबीरा खड़ा बाजार में सबकी माँगे खैर, ना काहू से दोस्ती ना काहू से बैर।" श्रीमति सिंह ‒ राष्ट्रीय दैनिकों में आने वाले "सुंदर-सुशील-शिक्षित-गृहकार्यों-में-दक्ष" सरीखे विज्ञापनों की साक्षात् अभिव्यक्त्ति। इस परिवार के निर्बाध प्रेम के बीच सहजता से भाँति-भाँति के व्यँजन तोड़ते हुए लगभग दो सप्ताहों में हमने मुहल्ले की गतिविधियों को आत्मसात करने का प्रयास किया। जैसे मुहल्ले की सुदृढ़ संचार प्रणाली ‒ जिसके द्वारा अगल-बगल लगी इमारतों के बरामदों से श्रीमतियों द्वारा सूचनाओं, गालियों, एवँ चुगलियों का, तथा कभी-कभी नवजात शिशुओं का आदान-प्रदान होता है, मुहल्ले में सुबह-सुबह आने वाला गौ-ग्रास रथ ‒ जिसको एक रुपए और एक रोटी देकर छोटे-मोटे पापों से छुटकारा प्राप्त किया जा सकता है, रात्रि के दूसरे-तीसरे पहर में सक्रिय होने वाले लावारिस कुत्ते ‒ जिनके होने भर से मुहल्ले की परिसीमा अंतर्राष्ट्रीय सीमारेखाओं की तरह सुरक्षित रहती है, तथा मुहल्ले के पास स्थित सेक्टर चालीस बाज़ार ‒ जिसके ईर्द-गिर्द गोधूली बेला में मँडराकर इस क्षेत्र की सांस्कृतिक विविधता और भौगोलिक समृद्धि का अवलोकन किया जा सकता है।

इन्हीं दो सप्ताहों के अंतराल में हमने निजी प्रयोग हेतु एक घर ढूँढने का भी बीड़ा उठाया और इंटरनॅट पर बहुतायत में उपलब्ध "फ़्लैटमेट रिक्वायर्ड" सरीखे विज्ञापनों से दिग्भ्रमित हुए बिना एक "वन प्लस वन" परिसर किराए पर लेने का निश्चय किया।

इस क्रम में हमारा प्रथम पड़ाव था जैन साहब का कार्यालय। जैन साहब ‒ हमारे कॉलेज के दिनों के घनिष्ठ मित्र और आजकल दिल्ली में उद्यमी; लगे हाथों दक्षिणी दिल्ली में ज़मीन-जायदाद के क्रय-विक्रय और पट्टेदारी में भी दिलचस्पी। जैन साहब ने हमारे मामले में स्वयँ रूचि ली, और तपाक से अपने एक कर्मचारी को हमारा केस सौंपा। कर्मचारी ने अपनी गाड़ी की चाभी को उँगलियों पर घुमाया, आत्मविश्वास का चूरन मुँह में दबाया, पूरी तन्मयता झलकाते हुए मामले की जाँच-पड़ताल की जिससे ऐसा प्रतीत हुआ कि हमारी आवश्यकताओं का एक सचित्र ख़ाका उनके मानस पटल पर गाढ़ी स्याही से छप गया हो, और अंत में आशावादी स्वर में बोले ‒ "ओ कोई गल नई जी, हो जाएगा! अभी आपको ले चलते हैं विज़िट पे - एक तो यहीं ग्रेटर कैलाश में है प्रौपर्टी, सिंगल रूम विथ स्मौल बाथरूम ऐंड किचन, बैड-ऐलसीड्डी-टीवी वगैरह भी हैं, फ़ुल्ली फ़र्निश्ड। एकदम फिट आपके लिए, अकेले ही रहना है आपको तो। इसके अलावा दो और हैं लाजपत नगर में, मेन मार्केट, आपका ऑफ़िस तो सीपी में है ना, बिलकुल बगल में।" इस आश्वासन के साथ हमारा मनोबल बढ़ाकर अपनी गाड़ी की चाभी को उँगलियों से निकालकर गाड़ी में घुमाया, और किसी अंतर्मुखी आनंद द्वारा बाहर की ओर धकेली गई विशुद्ध मुस्कान को मुखमण्डल पर धारण करते हुए बोले ‒ "चलिये!"

ग्रेटर कैलाश का मकान दरअसल तीसरे तल्ले पर बना एक कमरा था, जिसपर लोहे की गोल सीढ़ियों द्वारा हाथ-पैर समेटते हुए चढ़कर पहुँचा जा सकता था। कमरे का विस्तार इस इलाके की किसी भी छोले-कुलचे की दुकान की तरह सीमित था, परंतु कमरे के दो कोने, छोले-कुलचे की दुकान के कोनों की तरह ही सामरिक महत्व रखते थे, और अत्यंत उपयोगी थे। एक कोने पर लकड़ी की एक मेज़ थी, जो कक्षा से बाहर निकाले गए किसी छात्र की तरह उकड़ू बैठाकर छोड़ दी गई थी। इसी मेज़ की सतह पर दाहिने कोने में एक गड्ढा बनाकर स्टील का एक बेसिन जड़ दिया गया था जो विवशता से मुँह फाड़े कमरे की छत को ताक रहा था। कमरे के दूसरे कोने पर एल्यूमीनियम की पट्टियों और प्लाईवुड वाले तख़्तों से एक शौचालय निर्मित था, जिसे संभवतः हवादार रखने के लिये ऊपर की ओर खुला छोड़ा गया था। इस पूरी संरचना में किसी आधुनिक वास्तुशिल्पी का चातुर्य निहित था, और शायद उसी चातुर्य से प्रभावित होकर, उसे स्पष्ट करने की मंशा से हमारे साथ वाले श्रीमान हमारी ओर मुख़ातिब होकर बोले ‒ "है ना फ़र्स्ट क्लास, एक आदमी के लिए? और चूँकि आप जैन साहब को जानते हैं, इसलिए आपके लिए हमने मात्र अठारह हज़ार रुपए में बात भी कर ली है! कहिये।" हम सकुचाए ‒ किराया, मकान की परिस्थिति पर विचार किये बिना, हमारे निर्धारित बजट से बाहर था। गले तक उभरती पीड़ा को थूक से निगलकर हमने टूटे शब्दों में कहा ‒ "जी वो… थोड़ा छोटा है। एक बार लाजपत नगर वाला भी देख लें?"

लाजपत नगर का पहला मकान लगभग पचपन वर्षीय एक पंजाबी सज्जन का था, जो प्रत्येक वर्ष लगभग आधा समय "अब्रौड" बिताते थे। मकान के नीचे चाईनीज़ बल्बों से जगमगाती दुकानें किराये पर लगा दी गयीं थीं, जो अगल बगल की दुकानों से केवल व्यावसायिक ही नहीं, अपितु सामने की सड़क पर सामान एवँ गाड़ियाँ रखने की भी प्रतिस्पर्धा करतीं थीं। ऊपर सरदारजी स्वयँ रहते थे, तथा छत पर दो कमरे, अलग-अलग किरायेदारों के लिये निर्मित थे। कमरा दिखने में प्रागैतिहासिक सा था, परंतु चकाचौंध वाले बाज़ार के बीचोबीच होने से आधुनिक युग में बेची जाने वाली "रेट्रो" चीज़ों की तरह एक प्रकार से महत्वपूर्ण था। कमरे के मध्य में लगभग दस इंच ऊँची, आठ-बटा-छः की लोहे की सफ़ेद पलँग रखी थी जो मुग़ल-ए-आज़म के नये रँगीन प्रिण्ट के कुछ दृश्यों की याद दिलाती थी। पलँग ने कमरे के एक बड़े हिस्से पर अतिक्रमण कर रखा था, और बचे हिस्सों में एक छोटा सा रसोईघर, और एक गुसलखाना अटाया गया था। कमरा दिखाने के बाद सरदारजी ने हमें अपने घर पर बिठाया, और मित्रवत शैली में बोले ‒ "और, क्या करते हो?" हमने भी मुस्कुराते हुए उत्तर दिया ‒ "जी दिल्ली में नया आया हूँ, अभी तक नौकरी शुरू नहीं की। इससे पहले हैदराबाद में था।" इसपर तपाक से स्वयँ को सम्भवतः कोई जुझारु हास्य अभिनेता समझते हुए बोले ‒ "तो हैदराबाद छोड़कर यहाँ आ गये? और गर्लफ़्रेण्ड?" हम सकुचाये, और इस वार्तालाप में रूचि न होने की सी मुद्रा बनाकर बोले ‒ "जी कभी थी ही नहीं।" सरदारजी नहीं माने, एवँ "हमारे ज़माने में…" से शुरू करते हुये अतीत की झलक दिखाकर संवाद की भूमिका बाँधी। तत्पश्चात असली मुद्दे पर आए और उसी शैली में बोले ‒ "कोई दिक्कत नहीं होगी यहाँ, मैं तो वैसे भी छः महीने यहाँ रहता नहीं। गाड़ी वगैरह लगानी हो तो नीचे पूरी सड़क आपकी ही है, आठ बजे दुकानें बंद होते ही ये जितनी भीड़ दिख रही है, सब खाली हो जायेगी, जहाँ मर्ज़ी लगाओ। ऊपर कमरे के बाहर भी काफ़ी जगह है, हवा खाओ जब मन आए! क्या?" हमने गम्भीर मुद्रा बनाकर निर्णय टालने के प्रयास से कहा ‒ "जी सोचकर बताता हूँ एक-दो दिन में!" इसपर उन्होंने कहा ‒ "क्या सोचना है?" हम निरुत्तर सी मुद्रा में उन्हें देखते हुए बोले ‒ "जी?" बिना हतोत्साहित हुए उन्होंने दोहराया ‒ "हाँ मतलब क्या सोचने वाले हो?" हमें उलझन हुई - सवाल गहरा था - क्या सोचने वाले हो। हम अब भी निरुत्तर थे और मरियल कछुए की तरह सिर्फ़ ताक रहे थे। हमारी वेदना समझते हुए, सम्भवतः अपने कई वर्षों के अनुभव को निचोड़ते हुए वे फिर हास्य-मिश्रित शब्दों में बोले ‒ "बेटा, ज़्यादा सोचना नहीं चाहिये, कर देना चाहिये। जैसे हम सरदार - सोचते नहीं बस कर देते हैं। हमारे मनमोहन सिंह को देख लो, पहले कर देता है, सोचता बाद में है।" वार्तालाप पुनः किसी और दिशा में जा रहा था, और हमने परिस्थिति भाँपते हुए अपने साथ आये श्रीमान की ओर आशापूर्वक नेत्रों से देखा। श्रीमान चलने को अग्रसर तो हुए, परंतु तब तक चर्चा शहर में ज़मीन-जायदाद की वर्तमान अर्थव्यवस्था पर आ चुकी थी, और हम झेंपते हुए बैठे रहे। बाहर आकर श्रीमान ने हमसे कहा ‒ "थोड़े मज़ाकिया हैं अँकल, ख़ैर ‒ दूसरा घर भी देख लें? यहीं पास में है, और अँकल का ही है।"

दूसरा मकान भी कुछ विशेष उत्साहवर्धक नहीं था, तथा इस इलाके की बाकी इमारतों की तरह संकरी सड़कों के बीच बीमारू सी मुँह बाये खड़ी एक इमारत के अँदर साँसें गिन रहा था। हम निराश होकर बाहर आये, तथा श्रीमान से बोले ‒ "ऐसा करते हैं, एक बार मयूर विहार वाले इलाके में भी घूम लेते हैं।" श्रीमान ने मयूर विहार का नाम सुनकर घृणा और तिरस्कार की लगभग बराबर मात्रा में मिश्रित दृष्टि से हमें देखा, थोड़ा खँखारे, फिर एक क्षण कुछ सोचा, शायद हमारे नये होने का आँकड़ा अपने समीकरण में बिठाया, और परिणामस्वरूप उभरकर आयी सहानुभूति के वशीभूत होकर बोले ‒ "मयूर विहार वगैरह बेकार है, नौएडा वौएडा में पड़ता है, ऑलमोस्ट दिल्ली से बाहर है। क्या करोगे वहाँ जाकर? देखो, रहना है, तो साउथ डैल्ही में ही रहो - द ऐड्रेस। दिल्ली में यही एक हैप्पेनिंग जगह है, और कहीं का सोचो भी मत! पर मन है, तो देख आओ - अपनी तसल्ली कर लो, फिर हम तो यहाँ हैं ही।"

मयूर विहार का इलाका दिल्ली के पूर्वी क्षेत्र में, यमुना के उस पार पड़ता है। दिल्ली के अनगिनत कारखानों द्वारा उगले गए लाखों टन कचड़े को धकेल कर ताजमहल एवँ उसके उपरांत पहुँचाने में यमुना के इस हिस्से का अमूल्य योगदान है। "सर्वजन हिताय, सर्वजन सुखाय" को चरितार्थ करती इस प्राकृतिक प्रक्रिया द्वारा निरर्थक नदी को नाले में परिवर्तित करने से राष्ट्रीय राजधानी क्षेत्र की स्वच्छता एवँ निर्मलता बनी रहती है।

मयूर विहार में पहला मकान हमने श्रीमति सिंह की अनुशंसा का सहारा लेकर जुगाड़ा। श्रीमति सिंह ने हमारी सिफ़ारिश अपने फूफा श्री सिंह से की, जिन्होंने हमारा केस "प्रौपर्टी डीलर" श्री चौहान को सौंपा, जिन्होंने हमें श्री सच्चर के पास भेजा, जो हमें डीoडीoएo द्वारा निर्मित एक मकान का स्वामित्व रखने वाले एक गुजराती परिवार के पास लेकर गए। मकान के दूसरे तल्ले पर यह परिवार स्वयँ रहता था, तथा तीसरे तल्ले पर दो कमरों का एक खण्ड किराए हेतु था। ऊपर चढ़ने के लिये निर्मित सीढ़ियाँ दूसरे तल्ले के दरवाज़े के ठीक सामने से जाती थीं, तथा घर की औरतों एवँ बच्चों को हर आगंतुक के ऊपर-नीचे जाने का सिलसिलेवार ब्यौरा मुफ़्त में मनोरंजन स्वरूप प्रदान करती थीं। श्री सच्चर ने इस परिवार के प्रतिनिधि को हमारा परिचय अत्यंत भाव-विह्वल कर देने वाले तरीके से दिया ‒ "बहुत पढ़ा-लिखा लड़का है। चौहान साहब ने भेजा है, और आप समझ लो कि इसकी पूरी गारण्टी मेरी। आजकल इस तरह आराम से सीधे बैचलर्स मिलते ही कहाँ हैं। एजुकेटेड, अच्छी-खासी जॉब, कोई इधर-उधर का झमेला नहीं।" फिर अचानक से कुछ स्मरण किया, और हमारी ओर मुड़कर बोले ‒ "बेटा इनकी एक ही शर्त है, नॉन वेज खाने वाले नहीं होने चहिए।" प्रतिनिधि ने भी इस बिंदु पर विशेष प्रभाव डालने की दृष्टि से दो शब्द जोड़े ‒ "हाँ जी, आप नॉन वेज वगैरह तो नहीं खाते हैं?" हमने ना में सर हिलाया, और इसके बाद अगल-बगल ताक-झाँक करके इस मुहल्ले की गतिविधियों का जायज़ा लिया। अंत में और एक-दो मकान देखने का विचार करते हुए सच्चर साहब से कहा ‒ "अँकल एक-दो दिन में डिसाइड करके आपको कॉल करता हूँ।"

तत्पश्चात कुछ और निराशाओं तथा पूर्वी दिल्ली के अलग अलग इलाकों के दलालों को निर्भयता से झेलने के बाद हमने अंततः बिना लिफ़्ट की एक इमारत में चौथे तल्ले का एक परिसर लेना सुनिश्चित किया, तथा अपने गृह-अनुसंधान यज्ञ का समापन किया। सड़क के उस पार एक छोटे से बाज़ार में मिलने वाले पनीर टिक्के, इमारत के बगल लगे एक विस्तृत उद्यान में प्रातःकाल टीवी पर मशहूर बाबाओं द्वारा सिखाई गई क्रियाएँ करते वृद्धजन, बिना पालतू कुत्तों को साथ चिपकाये घूमने वाले लोग, तथा "बनाना शेक" में बिन माँगे मस्ती में एक चम्मच आईसक्रीम डालने वाले दुकानदारों के बीच यह आवास हमारी "दिल्लीवासी" बनने की अनिश्चित प्रक्रिया को मोटे तौर पर प्रोत्साहित करता है।