Many, many feet above sea level, the wind whipped my hair. Was it angry that I was cloistered in a closed space all this while, shutting out the world, face buried in a laptop? Or was it just a friendly whack to the back of my head that said it was glad I was finally out in the open? Questions, always so many questions. This need to find an answer to everything – to know for sure – when did it start taking over?
I shook my head and focused on the moment, the here and now. Massive rocks overlooking a sparsely populated landscape hundreds of feet below with patches of glittering green and brown fields… and I was standing on top of the highest one. I was high metaphorically as well – I had just climbed a mountain stacked with sharp, gigantic boulders just to prove to myself that I could. I breathed heavily, but it was a welcome sensation as the invisible chains around my soul came off. Travelling anchors me, but these days, I don’t travel as much. And I feel uncertain, unanchored. A piece of driftwood in a world that constantly pushes one to prove one’s abilities and work more, play more, live more. Live? Really?
The wind whirled around me again. While my cousins were busy taking selfies and swinging from trees, I took a moment to gather my senses. To see if I could reach out and find myself. “Get away from the edge! Don’t be a fool, sit back a little!”, my aunt said, looking at me. “I won’t fall”, I assured her, the wind still whipping my hair. I won’t fall. Into this rigmarole. This pattern of waking up, working, coming home, passing out, managing family expectations, social expectations, not finding time to reorient myself. Not finding the time to travel. To be me. About time I broke this pattern. I need to. I cannot live without hitting the road, driving past paddy fields and waterfalls and fishing boats and islands and processions and waving to strangers on the road guilelessly. I cannot live without driving through lonely forest roads in dark nights on the way to Goa or wondering how I’m going to trek to a monastery two mountains away from the starting point. Without feeling the sand tickle my toes and the water terrifying me. I cannot not travel.
So, I made up my mind and shut out my everyday existence. Took two days off – days that seemed like a lifetime – and went away with the family. I walked, ran, slipped and slid, climbed rocks, sang, bathed in moonlight, got kissed by the sun, lived in the fear of a close encounter with some wild animal, slept like a log, laughed hard, talked, sang, danced… I lived.
And in that moment, as I stood there on that magnificent rock, revelling in the pleasure of feeling anchored again, the wind changed course and made its way through my hair and into the curves of my ear. “Welcome back, stranger”, it whooshed.
It was 3:30 a.m. on a Ramadan morning in Bangalore when my phone buzzed next to my ear, announcing the arrival of a message. Whatsapp, I assumed, knowing fully well that the cousins would be up talking youngster nonsense till Seher time – the appointed hour when Muslims around the world wake up to eat, pray and fall back into a sleepy stupor. I had forgotten to put my phone on Silent mode when I passed out for the night and reached out blindly to amend my mistake before more buzzing could stir me awake.
It was a message from my mother. Just got back after a night of shopping at Charminar, finished Seher at Shadab, it read. She was in Hyderabad, yes, but Charminar at 3:30 in the morning? Impossible. I thought she was pulling a fast one – I fall for her pranks all the time. When I spoke to her the next day, she couldn’t stop gushing about the night – and all the other nights that she went gallivanting around Old City at bizarre hours. Why would you do that? Is it safe?, I asked. The whole world is out shopping till Seher!, she countered. I didn’t believe her.
Now I do, because I ventured out to the Old City three days before Eid and witnessed the mayhem for myself.
Let’s just say that I’m a parasite in human form, feeding off of the collective energy of excited, supercharged crowds. The Old City – more specifically, the stretch from Madina building to Charminar and beyond – was a hive, with a sea of black engulfing it, buzzing about haphazardly from one roadside shop to another. Open vendor stalls screamed slogans of encouragement for people to buy from them – “Aaiye, aaiye!” – music blared from the other end of the road and the crowd came in waves and carried one along with it. That frenzy! That madness! That salesmanship! That food! That night! So. Much. Fun.
Everything was selling at dirt cheap prices. I bought myself a gorgeously embroidered Georgette saree (against my better judgement) for a measly sum of 1800 bucks. Had I chosen to buy it from a showroom, it would have cost me an arm and half a leg. “The demand for store stuff is a lot lesser now, because everybody buys online these days”, one shopkeeper told my Dad, “So we have to make the most of times like these.” Fair enough, I thought, as I looked around and couldn’t stop smiling at the sales pitches being screamed all around me: “Hello Aunty! Only 120!”, “Hyderabad ki shaan, Paidaan!” (Hyderabad’s pride, a doormat – it sounds much funnier in Hyderabadi, believe me), “Loot lo, chaat lo, ghar jaake baat lo!” (Loot it, savour it, go home and share it! Basically meaning that it’s a steal at the price, so you can buy lots and then distribute it amongst the family.) One man – I’ll call him the Harsha Bhogle of Shopping – even had a microphone and conveyed a running commentary of his shoppers’ activities to the entire market. “Yes, yes, that is an absolutely fantastic piece of cloth you have in your hand! Close your eyes and go for it! Look at that lady eyeing your shopping! Quick, pick it up before it’s too late! Oh no, too late!” It was a sensory overload, but the kind I thoroughly enjoy. My parents couldn’t keep up and left by around 12:30 a.m. The cousins and I continued enthusiastically, but exhaustion washed over us by 2:30 in the morning. It was time to replenish ourselves with some food and water.
Even the eateries were crowded. The stalls that we managed to locate were tucked away in a corner and surrounded – again – by droves of people. My camera bag came pretty handy in making some space for us, so we could belt Mysore Bajjis, Boti Shorba, Sheermal and Gosh ke kabab. Delicious and thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you ignored how the plates were washed or the food was made. (None of us fell sick, so not so bad after all.) As we feasted, an ominous voice blared authoritatively over the loud speakers: ‘Please close your stalls by 3 a.m. The area needs to be washed and cleaned for Friday prayers.” The announcement only served to put the crowd on Charlie Chaplin movie mode. That was our cue to exit.
Our next hurdle was finding an auto. There was barely space for people to move – autos didn’t stand an atom of a chance. We had to walk to Qilwath, the clock tower near Charminar. The route took us through Laad Bazaar, the infamous bangle shopping lane. Everywhere my eyes rested, they encountered shimmering surfaces and glazed reflections that were occasionally blocked by a bunch of moving, bargaining Burqas.
It wasn’t all glitter and happiness, though. A keychain maker by the roadside, who made etchings on two inch-long glass bottles and sold them at the base of Charminar, counted his night’s earnings as closing time approached. “So much hard work and only 60 rupees to show for it”, he sighed. There was despair and bone-deep exhaustion in his voice. Maybe he would drink it all up. Maybe he would fast and pray for more. There’s no way of knowing.
What I did know was this, as an auto finally agreed to whisk us home: the sea of living, breathing eagerness and anticipation and excitement for new clothes and hairclips and shoes and bangles and Sherwanis and kurtas and Chadaavi jootas would eventually snap the keychain maker out of his reality. Tomorrow, he would come back. Tomorrow, he would work the same way and wish for more. Tomorrow, he would feel alive and live to celebrate another day of Ramadan in one of the oldest parts of Hyderabad. The crowd’s joy would be his. Their excitement about Eid would be his own – and hopefully, their money too.
Getting there: Old City is easily accessible by road up to Madina Building. Be prepared for a massive traffic jam if you’re going during Ramadan.
Go if: You love crowds, bling, bargains, street food and don’t mind staying up all night to see a phenomenon that comes around once a year.
P.S: Another sporadic break of more than three months in blogging – but all for good reason, I assure you. A fair amount of travelling has happened, so be prepared for a string of posts on the blog. Until then, thank you for sticking around and waiting for Potli Baba’s next adventure.
Legend has it that Mahabali, the ruler of the Asuras, was a wise king overthrown by his pride. When he took over the reins of the Asura kingdom, he was a wise and just man who ruled with love and benevolence. We don’t know how he managed it, but he also conquered the underworld and enslaved Heaven.
That Heaven, abode of the merry, mead-drinking Gods and dancing, elusive apsaras, should be ruled by a mere mortal was unacceptable to the immortals. And so the many Gods went to Vishnu, appealing to his sense of justice and asking him to intervene.
On the day that Mahabali began his yagna to maintain his rule over the three worlds, a Brahmin boy approached Mahabali and asked to be given a patch of land—he wasn’t greedy; he only wanted as much as his three steps could cover. Mahabali’s advisor advised against it, as all advisors do, but the king wouldn’t hear of it. He granted the boy his wish and stood staring aghast as the boy grew out of his disguise to take the form of Vishnu. With the first step, Vishnu covered the entire earth and the underworld; with the second, he reclaimed Heaven. Mahabali understood his mistake, and as Vishnu had already reclaimed everything in two steps and had nowhere to place his third, the king humbly offered his head to step on.
Mahabali was banished to the fires of the underworld, and the world was a happy place again.
Unlike him, i’m not greedy. I don’t want to own the world. I just want to travel it.