It was 10:47 PM. Our bus had left the ISBT about fifteen minutes ago. It was zooming past city streets, then slowing down, making turns and then speeding up again. Except for the orange tint of the street lights scattered in arrays, there wasn’t much light which shone upon the objects inside the comfortable domain of the vehicle. Like a filter, the windows separated the cozy, air-conditioned interiors of the bus with the outside world, the scorching city heat, the dust scraping off the skin and the air not-so-breathable from the day’s happenings, only allowing parts of the sound and light to affect the people inside the vehicle. The bus was headed towards Bhuntar, making its way through the night.

Except we weren’t inside the bus.

Our bus had left the ISBT about fifteen minutes ago and we were still at home, Googling ‘natural tourist destinations around Delhi’ which are doable in a short time. We were late, our bus had left us behind and after almost a week’s thorough planning of visiting Kasol, we were finally settling down on Kasauli or Ranikhet or Lansdowne or something like that. The reality wasn’t very satisfying, because once you’ve made your mind about something, you can only compromise with something else.

We all have our own reasons to escape from our daily lives and every once in awhile, we end up doing so. Only the places differ. Some find their safe haven in music, some find it in literature, some find it in nature. For me, it’s subjective. I have lived far too long with my own contradictions to be unable to accept them, now. I might not appear to you as a sorted-out person, because sometimes, I have varying views for the same thing or event hanging between the relative and the absolute, even if the basic intent remains the same. So I wanted a trip to Kasol. My brother-in-law (and apparently a great friend, that I only recently found in him) wanted it, too, to escape from the hectic work load at his office.

We had decided on the trip to start from 1st October, 2016 and end on 5th October, 2016. Because the first week started with a weekend and he could obtain a few days’ leave from his office, so we decided we will do it. I borrowed a Nikon D5100 (and an 18-115 mm lens) from a friend and we were packed and all set to leave at 10:30 PM on 1st October.

But we didn’t.

So with heavy hearts, we settled on Kasauli.

We took a cab early morning the next day and reached Kashmiri Gate ISBT. After inquiring a bit, we boarded a Himsuta Volvo of HPRTC, headed towards Chandigarh. 2×2 air-conditioned, semi-sleeper. Nice bus, I must say, all shiny green. Our bus left for Chandigarh at 7 AM. After an hour, we were whizzing past eucalyptus trees and paddy fields on the Delhi-Karnal by-pass. That indescribable view of the northern rural plains that most of us are familiar with, was in sight. Evenly green till the horizon, spotted by a few small buildings every now and then. I observed a lot of things in the 3 hours that it took to reach that dhaba and I can go on describing it in microscopic details, but that wasn’t the whole trip. It had only just begun.

dsc_0574The bus stopped at a dhaba named ‘Haveli’ outside Karnal, sometime before 11. The dhaba was beautifully built, very scenic, but the food was overpriced. We took two veg sandwiches and two cups of tea and it costed around three hundred rupees. We got back on the bus and it started back again. I was carrying with me a notepad, few pens, few Social Science books and Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. I took it out and its flow took me with it. Next thing I remember, we were closing in on Chandigarh bus stand.
While in the bus, I had noticed three guys sitting nearby. One of them was looking for buses to Bhuntar from Chandigarh on his phone. Here, I would like to mention a few things for people who haven’t been to Kasol, or those who don’t have much idea about it. There is no direct bus from Delhi to Kasol. The best way to reach there is to take a bus to either Bhuntar or Kullu and then take a different bus or taxi to Kasol. Railways and airways are scarce.

So the guy, who was checking buses to Bhuntar on his phone, was sitting right in front of me and I got to sneak at his phone screen and what I saw startled me. These guys were also headed towards Kasol. Funnily enough, I told it to my brother-in-law (I will mention him as ‘Jimmy’ from now, on) and suddenly we were there discussing it all over again, reconsidering our decision of visiting Kasauli instead of Kasol. This led to the first great and good decision of our trip.

We got down at Chandigarh and instead of Kasauli, diverted our trip back to Kasol. Earlier that morning, when we were in the cab headed towards the ISBT, it had occurred to me that this trip is going in vain. Neither of us was happy because we both knew that we had made our minds for Kasol, so even if any other place has a great many things to offer, we won’t be able to cherish or enjoy them. So the first decision in a series of good decisions on this trip was, to visit Kasol instead of any other place.

The bus from Chandigarh to Bhuntar wasn’t as shiny and nice as the previous one. A variety of people got onboard, old couples, beautiful women, young solo travelers, few with trekking equipment and cameras clearly suggesting they were headed for the mountains. It started around 12 o’clock and the journey was going to be long. The bus began grunting and hissing when the driver changed gears, zooming past buildings scattered evenly around the city. All this time while we were in this city, I couldn’t help but ponder over its beauty, the enormity of its planning and the order and organization of the people. For once, I even ended up comparing it to Greater Noida. There was not even a bit of trash that I saw either on or around the main roads. Not even the bus depot, one of the most common public places generally considered the filthiest throughout the country. There was a strange unnoticeable thing about the people there. They were all ordinary people like us, getting ready for their daily drills, catching buses to work, opening shops and buying groceries. But unlike Delhi, no one seemed to be in any sort of hurry. It appeared to me that this was a secluded town, hidden from the rest of the world, unaffected by the malicious stings of urbanization and thriving along its own set of rules which helped its inhabitants to get rid of the ordinary evolutionary human dysfunctions.dsc_0579

In simple words, these people still cared about their city. They strive to keep it clean, all of them operating together as a community, working to let the city grow, so they could grow along with it. It was like, they had these little virtues deeply instilled inside them, those primitive values that most of us humans have forgotten a long time ago. The straight roads, the squares, the pavements and dividers, the offices and schools, the greenery and the air – everything about Chandigarh was mesmerizing.

The bus kept moving as the thoughts kept playing soccer with my mind, kicking it from time to-time from one thought to another. The bus stopped around 1:30 at another beautifully built ‘Haveli’ restaurant by the highway outside Ambala, and it was only then that I realized this ‘Haveli’ is actually a chain of dhabas across north India, mostly in Punjab & Haryana. We had eaten sufficient in the morning, so we only got bread cutlets packed for the way.

The bus began again. Now we had around eight more hours to travel, so I would sometimes either pick up my book and read, or I would take out the camera and click the scenes outside the window for practice. But mostly I was thinking, planning about the things I would do when we reach Kasol.

There were a lot of beautiful bachelor women around my seat travelling alone who, I know, were noticing me and every now and then, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of them stealing a glance at me. You see, this thing about youth is as innocent as childhood. We are automatically attracted towards a person we find a potential partner in (or the vice-versa of this statement would be more precise). It’s like, we approve of each other’s presence and we agree of each other’s awareness, but we are held back by a strange force which asks us not to approach the person, because if the ciphers were all wrong, you might end up in trouble. This strange force is our culture.

Picture this – a girl approaches a guy in an almost empty compartment of a public transport. They both chat for a while, get to know about each other, have amazing conversations about atoms and space, about philosophy and life, about love and desire, about books and road trips and then, by choice and consent, they exchange contact details so they could enjoy these conversations longer. Because, you see, it’s that urge in all of us, the desire to communicate our feelings and thoughts to others. And if we have a romantic attraction towards the other person, the conversations automatically come alive because then, we’re enjoying the tiniest of sounds, the chuckle, the clap, the gestures and expressions the other person is making. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now picture the same scene in our ‘cultured’ society (which apparently hates western values). In 7 out of 10 cases, the attempts will be discarded at the very first step. Because even though both might accept it subconsciously that they are attracted towards each other, the mere fact that the other person was daring enough to approach them is too rapid a change in their survival conditions. We might die if that person stays near us for a little longer, now. They feel infected and the infection spreads until OH MY GOD, QUARANTIIIIINEE!

And in all other cases, either the girl is too arrogant, or the guy is an asshole. So the point is, I liked that girl sitting a row behind me on the opposite window seat of the 2×2 bus. I saw her looking at me a lot of times. Me, a 24 year-old guy with (I think) a nice beard and handlebars. My appearance wasn’t so alarming to her maybe, so I guess she decided to notice my activities as I moved from one to another spot to click pictures. She was beautiful and she was traveling alone.

When I noticed her, we were way beyond Chandigarh and clouds had already started appearing. Soon, the bus was floating above the serpents of hills, the dangerously narrow and twisting & turning roads through the beating rain and it was getting dark, partly because of the dusk coming down on us and partly because of the shade of the hills which were constantly growing in size and then, like an invisible wave it hit me. For over an year, I had waited for this and now it was there, subtle but the reason behind the smile that had just lit my face. I had put my camera on the seat beside me and I was stretching my ears and making awkward faces to clear it off-the change in air pressure which had hit me due to increase in altitude. I saw her leaning on the window, her shape a silhouette against the dark green background of the hill slopes beyond the glass. And she was looking at me for split seconds or even several seconds at a time, sometimes through the corners of her eyes, observing my actions and smiling at all the silly things I was doing. When I saw her, I dropped everything out of embarrassment. Then I started again and she smiled again, so on and on it went.

I don’t remember when did I doze off. The bus stopped at a rather dry and bright Bilaspur bus depot for about ten minutes. I told Jimmy about a cousin brother of mine who had spent 7 years in Bilaspur working for NTPC as a civil engineer at the Koldam thermal project. Then we chatted for a while and got up when got chased by a bull and the bus began again. You see, how inescapable it is for men to not get down whenever a vehicle stops? Here, I didn’t even mention that we got down from the bus, because I know everyone would understand that we did, once the bus stopped.

So the bus started from Bilaspur and I picked up the book Jimmy was reading just to have a look at it. The book was ‘A Train To Pakistan’ by Khushwant Singh. Right from the beginning, the book speaks volumes about the things we have been kept unaware of about the partition of India. The lies we’ve been told, the truth erased or kept hidden. I didn’t read it beyond a few pages, but I have asked Jimmy for it, once he’s done.

We were passing through Mandi and Sundernagar when it was almost dark. These two major cities and centers of commerce, located on a large flat ground in the hills, have streams and lakes and dams and schools and surprisingly enough, a lot of four-wheeler showrooms. Volkswagen, Nissan, Nexa, Renault, you name it and it was there. The bus stopped for a while outside Sundernagar and a lot of people got down. Jimmy and I got in the front rows because our stop, Bhuntar, was about a couple hours away.

My crush for the journey had got down at Mandi, so my little love story was only upto that place. Later in the front rows, I met Nisarg, one of the equipped solo travelers who got on the bus at Chandigarh. He was coming from Bangalore and was headed towards Spiti.
Spiti! I can’t tell you how much I love that place and I badly I want to visit it.

We chatted for about an hour and he turned out to be a nice person. He was going there for a week. He told me various things and we talked about traveling and the Himalayas, politics and modern education system and our cultural differences which influence our everyday actions. He told me about the Buddhists of Myanmar and I told him about the twin Buddhas of Bamiyan.

We reached the dark, stranded-looking town of Bhuntar around 9:30 PM. Apart from a few security guard manning properties or ATMs, and a few men probably waiting for transportation to neighboring towns, there were only stray dogs and dimly-lit alleys. We checked-in to one of the nearest decent-looking hotel ‘Amit’. We ate a nice dinner in the empty restaurant ‘Havemore’ downstairs and came back to our room on the first floor. I went to sleep watching an episode of The Kapil Sharma Show featuring Anna Hazare.

Advertisements

I am counting till ten
When seven comes
We’re supposed to be at the club, right on time
Let’s click some pictures
Some of them have got to be,
On purpose, ugly,
So we could all
Laugh at each other
Through it all
Journey out our summers
Wait for a flat and
For the late-night camping bummers

Two, cough, three, four
I, to fit inside four beats,
Found it hard always
So, make a different sized room for me.
Flashes inside the cinema hall
Glasses clinking, eyes shrinking
Everyone talking, thinking
You don’t listen to me.

Oh, it’s five already
Keep up, keep up
Flying colors aren’t worth our time
Rock n’ Roll on speakers
Your mid-life crisis next in line
Check the dashboard, 
I think there is my mind
Oh nevermind, it’s seven right now
I am standing at the club
Somebody missed the counting?

What’s so important down at ten?
Why are there so many questions?
This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
But I lost, so good luck,
Hide well, my friend
Made a fool out of myself
I am going back to one
And last time, won’t repeat
I am counting till ten

School got over
Summer came and brought mangoes
My Catfishes grew up to become Tigersharks
She still doesn’t play with me
I asked daddy to buy me a new Cricket set
I went to the park and looked at her house
A different boy was standing
He had a new bicycle
He was wearing goggles
It rained a lot and I cried in the park
Mommy made pudding
I ate all of it and read Nagraj comics
Superheroes are not real because
They are really bad people
The bad people that really are, are very small in their bad deeds
Summer was over
I dressed up like Nagraj for my Birthday
Also wore new goggles
She still doesn’t look at me
I guess she also thinks of superheroes as bad
I went to the planetarium
So many stars and planets and so much more black
I saw Earth take a long time around the Sun
It goes round and round and comes back to the same place
I saw her cry so many times
First bruises, then exam results, then the different boys
She still doesn’t talk to me
I guess she doesn’t know I am visible

One day school will be over
And the Earth will complete another round of the Sun
Maybe she will notice me then
My Earth, and finally come to me
I will let all her clouds rain
On the barren lands of my shoulders
Time is a silly thing
Sometimes it takes a whole summer
For the Catfishes to grow into Tiger-Sharks
And sometimes we grow up writing poetry about someone.

There is a bedtime story I listened to, once
of a clan of people who had strength of hand.
They were rich,
they were in numbers,
they had weapons and vast lands.
But they jutted all day over
their great ancestry,
so, they never themselves
grew up to be great again.

If they knew what was lacking
in the tight knots
of fickle relations,
they’d have known
how many more miles to go
before the river shows up,
how many more ages
before they realize
that no amount of steps
will ever lead them to heaven.

The clouds’ embrace, the pearly gates – they all came down to them, somehow.
Is there a drop left to drink?
All the waters declared holy, all your gods
laugh at you now.
The wars were all long over,
this city fell when we were celebrating.
You were dancing, I was pouring,
the rest of us still snoring,
tired of the battle, wounded and smeared.

I slept halfway through the story, I think.
When I woke up at the end,
they were burning corpses of my kin,
and I was breathing in the smoke, the tears welling up –
was it sadness?
Or did I smell freedom?

A handful of cleaners talk
over a certain news headline
during their morning duties.
They sweep paper cups and pamphlets.
Someone says something
about women, and more voices join in.
A four-thirty am routine wakes up someone in Kalkaji,
when it’s still dark outside.
When the family sleeps, this person gets up everyday,
pulls out a stool and a small aluminium chest from under the bed,
looks at the stickers on its surface,
traces something with her fingers: a name enclosed in bright, golden borders,
a tiny flower beside it.
Today is an important day,
or so she tells herself.
She mumbles something, rubs her neck, then gets up.
Moves swiftly around the house,
these days without her slippers.
It takes her just over an hour
to reach the venue for today’s program.
She paints a section
of a campus wall with fellow artists.
The wall looks alive, now.
She explains to the visitors,
the message behind her artwork – the violence and the pitiable condition of women
behind closed doors.
With these thoughts in her mind,
she restores the aesthetics of ugly,
dirty buildings and abandoned spaces in a few hearts
through her smile and her wall art.
It’s an honor for her.

Backstage, the curator
thanks all the awardees
hands them an envelope each.
On her way home, she opens the bag
checks the contents inside the envelope,
visits a pharmacy and an electronics shop
then takes a cab back home.

Every night,
she knocks at her door around eleven-thirty.
But today is an important day, she says to herself.
The knock shuffles the shadows and mutes the noises
inside her house for a while.
She enters to sniffs and sobs,
the smell of kerosene and cheap whiskey, and
the silhouette of an abusive father
standing in the glow of the bathroom door
waiting for her
to reach her room
and lock it from inside,
go to sleep.
And that’s what she does.
The noises gain momentum, again
as she collapses on her bed
not sure if she wants to eat
or change her clothes.
She just wants
to lie down for a while
and look at the colorful blots of light on her window,
visiting her from the city outside,
or just the ceiling fan.
Half an hour later, she gets up,
pulls out the aluminum chest
and the stool.

Draws a rope and turns off a switch.
‘Happy birthday’ she says to herself.
And then, all the rooms inside the house
begin staging in theatrical fashion,
some of the old habits of its inhabitants – 
a couple of small, tender feet,
push down the stool below them,
a thin metal hits someone’s flesh,
smashes into a wall in a different room,
a kid wakes up crying in another, silenced by a palm cupping its mouth.
The rope breaks free of the ceiling,
her body falls on the ground with a thud, coughing.
She lies there, tears warming her cheeks sideways, no sobs.
No expressions of grit or remorse.

A while later, all the noises die down.
She opens the chest, takes out a small box,
a cotton roll and a cellphone from her bag.
Her father goes to sleep or maybe passes out drunk.
She wipes the blood off of her mother’s body, 
as her mother stares into a void.
The kids, her marriage, the sum of her decisions
that weren’t really her own,
now weighing down heavily on her daughter.
Her eyes bulge more inside than out.
Her lower lip swells and she has,
fewer bangles, more bruises,
more wrinkles, not many days left to live.
She looks at her mother,
then at the cellphone – a new, unusual object
in the stagnant pool of their lives and routines.
She’s tired and wants to go to sleep, so she
dials a number
and a few vehicles with sirens, rush towards her home.
Too many rapid changes in the lives of these people,
too little space to accommodate them all.

A handful of cleaners talk
over a certain news headline
during their morning duties.
No more silhouettes of abusive fathers in the light of the bathroom doors.
A four-thirty am routine wakes up someone in Kalkaji,
when it’s still dark outside.
No need to walk without slippers on cold floors.
She mumbles something, rubs her neck, then gets up.
No more missing the ceiling fan and the rope.
But today is an important day,
or so she tells herself.

A pigeon came to my backyard, yesterday.
One of these days,
it’s gonna nest there.
Not long before the neighbor’s cat invades
and the pigeon cries a few tears
before it nests again.
This could have been poetic, had
the squabs survived.
But death suddenly kills the whole vibe, kills a few people you cared for
and a bloody good bunch of years
spent as faces lit with
the brightest smiles
drinking from the bottles
and stripped naked bikes
running on highways from our bucket lists.
From writing letters to keeping mouths shut
how far have we come,
how far yet is our nest?
When they were giving it the name ‘love’
I was found guilty of treason
but the only one to speak the truth,
the flaws and the risks involved.
When I finally found what 
it was meant for,
I was 6 feet deep in regrets,
holding my breath,
holding on to everything
I couldn’t protect.
One of these days, I want
to show that pigeon a mirror,
just for fun, just to see what it does.
Then I want to see myself a mirror, too.
God, it’s been years!

There was a colony of ants under the bench we were sitting on. Not the ones that bite, I guess. Or that’s what I told you, because they didn’t bite us for as long as we stayed there. Some of them even climbed up our feet and wandered aimlessly. I didn’t notice until we got up and began to move, that a few of them were still on-board.

We were actually carrying these ants far away to some place from where they probably won’t be able to ever make it back home, their lives being so small. Tiny little things, these creatures.

Then we sat down, drank water, tasted each other’s lips, talked about how badly we wanted the clouds to pour, drank some more water, then again ate each-other’s now completely naked, magenta lips.

You smell so divine, I thought, but couldn’t say it to you. Like so many other things.

Like how I feel people are always afraid of getting lost, how they always want to be able to make it back home, how they say things they don’t really understand.

That’s one of the many reasons we never exaggerated our feelings with words we never meant, because for people like us who infuse themselves with too much realism, words weigh more than matter, forever is temporary, and existence is a self-paced chance to run the course of life on self-modulated tracks. So for us, ‘together-forever’ simply meant for as long as forever lasts.

When we hugged each other goodbye in the evening, I stood at the corner of the road in the drizzle, watching you walk slowly towards your home. The days to come mean so much more, now, I thought, but couldn’t say it to you. Again.

And from this point on, I guess, like those ants, we won’t be scared of getting lost, for as long as forever lasts. Because now we know we’ll carry our home with us.

If you, somehow, manage to travel to the edge of the universe, you will not fall off into a mysterious dimension beyond the one we already know. It’s because there’s no temporal edge to the universe, but a horizon which keeps on moving with the observer. You might experience the balloon analogue – like an ant travelling on the edge of a balloon or a soccer ball.

What does it mean, you may ask?

It means that it’s the same story everywhere.

We come from all the elements which make up the universe. In simpler words, we are a microcosm in ourselves, a tiny firmament in constant sync with the rhythm of totality. The only thing which exceeds in scale and scope, a consciousness having the capability to understand and comprehend the universe and its existence, is the universe itself. It means that if there was a ranking system to order the extent of everything, we would come only second to the infinite darkness out there.

That’s the reason why we attribute the presence of everything to a higher power. That’s why it’s so hard for us to believe that there isn’t something bigger than all of us which set everything in motion. But how far do we go in the pursuit to define our limitations, the reason why we come second in the order of the grand scheme? I wish we had some ability to exemplify.

Our gods are as human as us – they often look like us, perceive things like us, and given the wings of the ‘mystical’ individualism and the legalistic & organisational extremes of religion, even think like us. To be honest with you and with myself, I would say we created this image of a super-human god only so we could ‘improve’ ourselves and eventually achieve that stature at some point of time.

Only so we could become gods, ourselves.

It is both true and false at the same time that we grew out of nature, that we developed ‘an aspect of nature separate from nature itself’. I think that’s partially because the only thing which distinguishes us as an entirely different class of species from the living, is the roof of our desires exceeding our needs. Essentially because we can, so we think we should. But even then, we haven’t fully broken out from our animal instincts. The mark of natural selection, like a food stain on white linen, shows up in the form of oppression in all human societies and cultures. We still want to kill each other, the strong still subside the weak.

To believe that there is a hidden meaning in all that we do or are meant to do, that there is an order to our days, is a nice perspective towards life. To consider that the beautiful randomness which surrounds us is an ugly reality to wake up to is as absurd as existence itself.

From the Big Bang & Evolution to Creationism, from Faith to Existentialism or even Nihilism – all the theories, the schools of thought and philosophies, the complexities and the simplicities, the absolute and the relative, all the things that we ever came across written or not throughout history – existed here, on this planet. In the short insignificant recess that we’ve got here, we cannot measure or prove in its entirety, whatever is bigger than us and blinks slower than all of our past and future put together.

We can try, of course. But I am sure that the humongous growth of our desires for sophistication; the false belief which keeps our minds from reaching its zenith while making us egotistical enough to consider ourselves the superior-most in multiple senses, will assist us to bomb or smoke ourselves to oblivion.

People say what they believe. They say faith is necessary to live a happy and fulfilling life, because it gives us a sense of a greater ‘written’ or ‘pre-defined’ purpose and keeps us sane.

I think otherwise.

I think that rationality doesn’t necessarily come with knowledge. I think that the sheer immensity of the universe and its beauty is sufficiently fascinating for me. All the material reasons, for as long as they may last, can be enough to keep the feeble minds happy, but the cosmos, in all its temporariness, is still bigger than you, than me, than all of us.

It defines infinity for us. And because it’s mostly dead, it doesn’t discriminate like our gods and us. In one way, it’s the purest and the most innocent thing we’ve ever known, lying far beyond the epitome of our limited knowledge.

So what’s the point of it all? I’ll tell you what.

I work night shifts. There’s a huge window in front of my desk at my workplace, so I watch the sun come up every day. On random Friday mornings, as I sip coffee and write down this unnecessarily long text, I look up at the sky marked with orange tinted altocumulus clouds and watch an airplane flying above them. I wonder how we got there.

And one of these days, just like you, I think of abandoning all my belongings, collecting all the money I can get my hands on and getting on one of those planes. I think of going to all those wonderful places I can visit while I am alive, meeting and squeezing inside my arms all those people who ever crossed paths with me and tell them how beautiful they are and how much I’ve loved them.

We are made up of the same elements which constitute the heavens. We could have been the burning gas giants or the cold stone dwarfs, but we are not. We are the most alive and aware species known to ourselves. Think of it for a minute and the thought is both scary and overwhelming at the same time.

This is what the star-spangled skies, the beautiful abstract art we know as the macrocosm has taught me. We all might be different people, but trust me, it’s the same story everywhere.