The Incredible Host

Why do I keep reminding myself of this trip? There are several reasons: the foremost being it was among the last couple of trips when we didn’t have to care about applying for leaves to go on a holiday. And then of course, there were 16 of us, to-be engineers in the last semester. Oh, and we could spend out of our dad’s pockets! And there were other reasons which we discovered after reaching there. It was a small secluded village in the north of West Bengal, nested in the tranquil lap of Himalayas. The graffiti on walls depicted the voice of the locals: “Fulfill our demand for a new state: Gorkhaland” but there was not a speck of blood. Peace reigned supreme. This place goes by the name ‘Lolegaon’.
One March afternoon, after lunch, we decided to leave the comforts of the cottage of the Forest Department we had unpacked ourselves in, to breathe the fresh air so lacking in the city we had escaped from. So we walked. Unplanned as it always used to be, in those days. It was sunny but the sun was not cruel. Within ten minutes, we were at a point where the road forked: one towards the market (well, a market in Lolegaon means a maximum of eight thatched houses: two selling food to the occassional tourists, another two cigarette and paan, two handicrafts and souvenirs and two grocery) and the other of which we had no clue. After a short stint roaming about in the “market”, we decided to go for a walk along the path which certainly appeared to be less treaded. One of us pointed,”Look at the board!” We turned to where his fingers pointed: Canopy Walk: 1.5 km. Nodding at once, we had already made up our mind.
Walking along the forsaken path gossiping, we reached another even more deserted place called the “Canopy Walk”. It had a board with its name and a ticket-counter. We’d thought, it would be some fancy park. We were wrong; truly happy to be wrong! The ticket-counter was closed; probably it had closed long back due to lack of tourists. We exchanged glances: “But that doesn’t stop us from exploring the inside, does it?” In a minute, we were inside the vast Canopy Walk. The government had stopped pouring money for maintenance; wilderness sprang forth in all possible directions and magnitude. We were walking inside a forest! Thankfully, we didn’t have hosts fiercer than monkeys or dogs. There was no direction-board. Dogs came to our rescue. We followed them and reached what we called the “Hanging bridge”: a wonderful wooden bridge held by ropes on its sides, made more beautiful by the sheer lack of maintenance. Well, no river had to be crossed; it was simply a bridge that probably saved you from feral creatures who despised heights! We climbed on it gleefully. At the same time, we were skeptical of the bridge’s ability to tolerate our increasing body-weights. The engineers had done a good job- so we could cheer and hoot insanely as we crossed what was to us more adventurous than crossing the famous Ram-Jhula. We sat on a huge fallen tree and clicked photographs! Suddenly, we realized: “There could be more falling ON us!” Thus we fled! On our way back, we picked some sticks and started fighting- oh, nothing serious, we just posed for the lenses.
Relaxing on a fallen tree & posing for a fight!

As we walked back towards the junction where we’d seen the board showing the distance of “Canopy Walk”, another board which had earlier escaped our eyes was “Sunset Point: 1.5 km”. From what we guessed, we still had about an hour to reach before sunset. Enough time. So we set out. It had been 200 meters and we were undecided: two roads diverged and again we were reminded of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. We, however, hardly wanted it to make any difference; prosaic that we were, only sunset interested us. And then out of nowhere appeared a dog- a black one. It stopped before us, looked at us and started springing along one of the roads. One of us said-“Let’s follow him. He knows the road.” Some nodded at the idea, smilingly. Others laughed out loud, totally dismissing the thought. But we had little choice. We had to choose one before it was too late. We knew, if we took the wrong one, we could miss the sunset. We followed him.
                                                                     Spot our guide

And it made a difference! We realized that after half an hour (or may be even more) of strenuous trek along a steep narrow track which can barely be separately identified as a route from the dense foliage, but for the generous pathfinder who led us all along the way to the top, ensuring at regular intervals that none of us were left behind in this tremendously exhausting exercise. One of us wittily remarked, “This is 1.5 km of vertical height!” We doubted if we could reach the top before sunset. But, there was no looking back once we had chosen to be part of it. The path, strewn all over by leaves, branches and fallen trees, was almost always inaccessible and we had to make our way through it by tactically using our hands and feet. Eventually, we made it. Felt like champions!
Elated and tired. Never been more tired. The sun was still there- waiting for us. The only reason we figured out that this place was actually the Sunset Point was that there were a couple of benches. Besides the sixteen of us, there was nobody. As we waited for the sun to hide behind the mighty mountains, somehow we gathered strength to “play” that age-old game of Antakshari. Now that’s the advantage of being in a forlorn place; you can sing your heart out. We were so engrossed in our game that we never realized that a couple had also reached there, silently sitting on the other bench, listening to us, arms around each other. They were such a remarkably adventure-loving honeymoon-couple, sharing the victory-stand with us.
As we sat on a rock, enjoying the most pleasant view from the top, I realized that our guide, the dog, was silently relaxing, eyes fixated at the Sun as the sky turned from blue to yellow, then to orange and blood-red before going dark. Indeed, the dog had guided us to the serenest place. I was reminded of the Mahabharata where a dog had accompanied the Pandavas during their ascent to heaven. We were no Yudhisthir but this poor creature had taken the pains to guide us to the gateway to heaven- indeed, what sight is more fascinating than watching the changing colors of nature! We were overwhelmed: we sat still in silence; believe me, it’s a momentous task for a group of sixteen young guys from college; but we did feel a force that calmed us down. The sun only went behind the clouds and it wasn’t the most perfect sunset in technical terms. But, the beauty of the entire setting had left us spell-bound. Suddenly we realized it was getting dark and that we had to tread the same path through the jungle to reach the main road. It wasn’t easy, either. We knew that we had found a guide, of the most unbelievable kind, one who did not expect anything in return. He was the most incredible host, showing us his home around, leading us to a heavenly abode, living true to the cliched- “Atithi devo bhava”- the poor creature upholds to this day in my minds, the philosophy of an ideal Indian host.

This post is an entry under "Incredible Stories!" contest held by Mahindra and Indiblogger.


If you had never had the opportunity of travelling with the Indian Railways, you have indeed been deprived of an experience you could make use of when you end up in hell. Well, unlike probably what my opening line indicates, I am not here to curse or condemn one of the largest (probably fourth) railway networks in the world. Indeed, I will keep the discussion short and simple: there are some phobias that didn’t let me sleep in trains. Literally. Having travelled in trains in almost all parts of the country, I have had to travel in all the three, um, five possible berths in the three-tier system the Indian Railways offers. And I suffered from a different kind of phobia while sleeping in each of these berths.

The Lower Berth: Considered the safest and is usually recommended for the aged and the women, this one is not actually the safest (Yes, I don’t remember having read in a newspaper that someone died from falling off a higher berth in a train! Did I say- died? Well, didn’t hear about someone breaking his tibia or her phalanges either!). Particularly when the train is travelling through certain states (UP and Bihar to name a prominent few), there are more passengers in the same coach as you than permits the number of berths. This is because a “reserved” compartment is not actually a reserved one. A lot of people, men and women of different ages, travel alongside you, sitting on the same lower berth you are sleeping in, occupying approximately one-twelfth the area to place their uncomfortable buttocks in an even more uncomfortable journey. So, you have a smaller “leg space” and a tenser night arising out of the thoughts that either your legs might touch that person (if you are overly religious) or (if you are practical) that you might find your bag unzipped in the morning and the person already heading home with a big smile! Add to that the never-ceasing fear that the two berths above you (with a fat man on one and a fatter woman on another) may fall and suffocate you to a death of the most unimaginable kind! (Remember the movie series, Final Destination?) Other trivial uneasy feelings might be contributed by the window (of a non-AC coach) that refuses to be shuttered completely on a wintry night, thus letting in enough of the biting wind and giving you a sore throat.

The Middle Berth: With no fellow passenger sitting “on” your feet to bother you all night, do you think you’re in a better situation? Hell, no! If you are sleeping with your head on the aisle side, you (or if you are an optimist, lets suppose, your fingers) could be crushed under the feet of that fat man trying to get down that three-step “ladder” from the upper berth in the middle of the night to visit the loo. There is again a similar phobia of getting sandwiched between the two berths in case of a mishap. And believe me, it’s not very comforting to be the patty in a burger when you know you’re going to be devoured by the cruellest glutton! Plus, the senile fan is barely able to deliver air to this somewhat “hidden” berth.

The Upper Berth: Although the height can be a turn-off for most women, kids and the aged, this is a safe choice for people like me. No sensation of claustrophobia; okay, lets change the “no” to “low”. There is the dirty fan making noise trying to make its presence felt. And then God said-“Let there be Light”. God could have done better; some people don’t want to switch it off. Either they never manage to finish their dinner on time (now who decides that? Perhaps we can take that up in another blog post) or they never manage to arrange “things” and get their makeshift bed ready. There are others who do it for fun, to irritate fellow passengers! (Trust me, such people exist: I tried it during my college days myself; come on, I had bad company). So, the bright light stares straight into your eyes, forcing you to contract and expand your pupils uneasily till more people join you and complain vehemently enough to finally get it to be turned off. Climbing the stairs or the “ladder” is tricky and in a train in India, you have to precisely know the time to use it in order not to end up kicking the woman carrying her baby to the bathroom or toppling the hot tea off the kettle of the poor chaai-vendor. Still, being located at a secluded spot, this remains my favourite berth location. (And even if the fan doesn’t work, it’s not very hot out there; probably air seeps in through the ceiling; now that would be a revolutionary discovery, won’t it be?)

The Side Upper Berth: All side berths, for those who don’t know, have been designed to fit a hobbit. Well, being slightly taller than that, I have difficulties adjusting my body into it. Unless it’s too cold for you to sleep without crouching like a new-born, you’ll never have enough space to extend your legs. So, forget about sleeping. Add to that the miseries of any side-berth- the continuous cacophony of vendors and passengers walking down the aisle. In this case, it doesn’t matter which side you place your head (and hence the ears), either ways are on the aisle side.

The Side Lower Berth: This is mostly not meant for sleeping. Usually all trains are so crowded that two people are allotted seats (popularly known as RAC) in this berth for them to travel without the “comforts” of a complete berth. Any non-Indian would be (pleasantly?) surprised to witness the fact that two complete strangers share a bed, um, the berth in a train in India. And usually in a position that would embarrass both of them when they wake up in the morning! If you’re lucky (?) to travel in a train where side lower berths are being used as berths (because it’s less crowded) and you have been allotted the same, all the miseries of lower berth and side berth appear in harmonious conjunction.

So, good luck, my friend! You have to weigh all pros and cons to decide on which factors you consider less tormenting while choosing a berth (as if you get what you choose!). Indeed it surprises me how people in India manage to put up with these maladies without uttering a word of complaint!
I reiterate: Only in this great country can two strangers share the bed because they are part of the same journey.

Dirty Fan

At least three months. I hadn’t looked at the fan hanging from the ceiling. The blades have lost their shine. Who would dare predict its original color? A layer of dirt, probably with a touch of soot, has clung on to all the three blades almost equally. Dirt has concentrated along the edges, its thickness consistently reducing towards the centre. Winter is a good time to reflect on fans!
Certainly a lifeline in the hot Delhi summers for those who cannot afford air-conditioners, every effort was made to ensure that this device never stopped rotating. And now I realize that I didn’t care to glance at it for all these months because I never needed it, thus allowing dust to gather around it.
As I write this, my parents are here on a visit. They have worked hard all these years- before and after my birth, trying to bring me up with the best they could afford, like almost every parent in this world. And thus I am not overly grateful to them; it is certainly their duty and I hope to do it in the same or a better way. But when their greying hairs peek out of the artificial hair-dyes, they send out a message. All those years they have provided me fresh air by continuously rotating all day and all night, they have exhausted themselves and gathered dirt. Like the fan which heats up from uninterrupted motion, their temper has gotten ‘hotter’. From excessive wearing out, they sometimes tend to refuse to ‘rotate’. I get irritated. Never did I try to wipe off that layer of dust and remind myself of the pleasant breeze they helped me enjoy in summer.
It’s high time I take up the wiping cloth….