There is a question some friends here have asked. They ask me, if the things that I write, are exaggerated, if they are build upon..?
The answer is very simple. 'Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.'
Something, only those who live through it, and feel it, can know.
Each page of my travel journal, is of real instances, real happenings.
What I went through.. what I saw.
Each night, without fail I would dictate the days happenings into my dictaphone; to keep the memories of the day intact. When circumstances weren't favorable for that, I wrote it down.
I am just transferring it here.That is all.
(Another thing, is the questions about Tenzing. Tenzing is my bike. That is what I have named my bullet. In one of my earlier narratives here, I have talked about that. :) I hope, that the question will be avoided henceforth.)
I began with Raju bhai's story, to start off in a lighter vein.
But the major part of the journey wasn't so. This chapter takes us to the real soul of our land.
It was the 14th day of travel. I was on my way from Barh (pronounced 'Barah') to Mirzapur. [from Bihar, to Madhya Pradesh.]
I had stayed the night at a small lodge in Barh. Had gone to bed on an empty stomach as there was nothing available to eat. Next day, very early in the morning, I set off from there.
After a few hours on the road, by about 8 am, I came upon a small wayside shop. A few dusty packets of 'Lays', bought, 'who knew when,' hung there in the sunlight. The only other thing available was black tea.
I bought a cup of tea and with it, I had a couple of biscuits that I had brought along with me. Gave two to the shopkeeper too. And we sat there a while talking.. about the land and its people.
In between, I asked him if there was some place where I could buy food.
There it was considered a luxury to buy even a glass of tea; let alone think of a hotel! I realized that only when he said so.
"Everybody here is poor. No one goes out to eat. Whatever is necessary, is cooked at each home and eaten..," explained the shop owner.
We talked of many other things. I paid him. And again started Tenzing.
Like it says in the movie.. it was 'neelaakaasham, chuvanna bhoomi', [blue sky and red earth] alone. The sun's rays, now beginning to blaze! The temperature was at 46 to 47 degrees. Passing arid lands, the highway stretched ahead endlessly; fields on either side. Reddish brown, half harvested sparse fields. On the wayside there was no shade worth its name; not even a 'crow's feet worth' of shade!! Just the fiery sunlight all around. Earlier in the day, I had filled a bottle with water from a wayside tube well. Now, it would have barely a glass of water left in it.
The little water left in the 'kannas' (a plastic container to hold liquid) was strictly for utmost emergencies. To occasionally wet the buff [cloth used to cover the face]. (Within 10 minutes, it would evaporate.) I would sometimes use the water to wet my nose and ears..
Those were all ways adopted to face the scorching heat from the sun.
It was 1 pm, and I was almost blind with hunger. All that I had to eat or drink from the night before, was a glass of black tea and two biscuits.
Thus, I rode on. And then, a little further off, I saw a tree. There were some bushes nearby, and a few straggling creepers.
There, in the half shade and sun, I put Tenzing on center stand. 'Let him rest a bit too.'
In the little space that remained, I unfolded my three legged stool, placed it close to the tree and rested.. leaning against its trunk. What a relief!
As I sat there, I told myself.. 'if it was to be biscuits, so be it.'
Unbearably hungry now.
There might be a little water left., maybe, enough to wet my throat.
I took off my boots and kept it carefully aside. From my bag, I took out a packet of biscuit. And as I opened it, felt a touch.. someone was poking at me on my right side!!
Who might that be! I turned around to look into two bright eyes. It was a child. A boy, about 4 yrs old. He smiled. and so did I. Where could he have come from?
There were open fields behind. The branches of the tree I was sitting against, curved, bending towards the field. Then, there were those bushes and creepers I had seen earlier. Maybe, he came from behind those.
Meanwhile, with curiosity, the child touched my knee guard. Pressed it.. examined it.
Extending the biscuit pkt towards him, I gestured.. 'Do you want this?'
'For me?' he gestured back, touching his chest..
"Mm," I said.
The moment I handed it over. He shot off like an arrow and disappeared from view. Where did the kid go to?
I thought I'd follow and find out. Also, I might find some water to drink. Tucking the bottle under my arm. Keeping the baggage close together, I took an other packet of biscuit, and went up the ridge on the sides of the field, behind the creepers.
The scene I saw there.. There were 3 or 4 people sitting on the ground. A cow and two calves were grazing peacefully nearby.
I think maybe, a family of farmers taking their afternoon rest. As I walked closer the sight that greeted my eyes were pleasant and unexpected. A four year old distributing biscuits. After giving it to everyone there.. feet outstretched, he sat on the edge of the field and began enjoying the biscuits.
That was the time I reached there. Or, he saw me then. He looked at me and smiled. So did the others sitting around. Nearby, maybe it was his mother, a figure sat hunched up with a child younger to him. It was difficult to make out anything other than that it was a woman. A skeleton covered in cloth. A living symbol of poverty and life's hardships..
l stretched out the biscuit pack I hand in hand, to her.
'Should she accept it or not?'.... There was confusion and wonder on her face. And the doubt whether she should touch food that belonged to another.
You might wonder how I knew that. The only answer is.. solitary travels and unique experiences teaches and enables one, to understand some things that are beyond words and situations.
Anyway, she accepted it. Her husband took three biscuits from it, another person took two, and kept those in their pockets. Maybe to give it to some one back home. Thinking so, I sat beside them. Her husband got up, and I watched in astonishment, as he fed a biscuit each to the cow and the two calves there!
Now, we had all had a share of the biscuits.
As for me, I was very thirsty.
In a mixture of gestures and Hindi, I asked if I could have a drink of water.
The language they spoke wasn't Hindi. Probably some local dialect. As if saying 'of course, why not,' she extended a medium sized bowl towards me. I drank some of it. Something with indifferent taste. Neither salty nor sour. Maybe it was their rice water, 'kanji vellam'. There were some grainy bits in it, I knew not what. Anyway I felt energized when I drank some of it. My thirst was also quenched. I handed the vessel back to her.
Now the four year old came forward, took the vessel from her and drank some of it. There was only one vessel of water, one container. And so, everyone was drinking from it. So what? :)
I didn't find that a problem anymore.
[Let me remind you now... that, when I started my journey on that first day, I was drinking only mineral water. What brought about the sea change in my outlook now? Sometimes, the plans we make [ trying to play God! :) ] has no meaning. Some things happened on the third day of my travel; to totally change the way I looked at life.. More about that later. Anyway, suffice to say; it didn't feel strange anymore to share a plate with complete strangers.]
Now, I was about to see something more and learn something I will never forget.
One of the calves came running to where we sat. It too drank some of the water in the vessel. The man of the house, took the cloth hanging on his shoulder and softly he proceeded to diligently wipe away with care, the water and dust clinging to its face. The calf then lay nearby and began chewing cuds. There was still more water left in the vessel. The man took it in his hands and drank deeply from it...
And, I sat there stunned. What an experience!
Man and animal sharing the same 'plate'!
And, what had I drunk? 'Kaadi vellam!' (kaadivellam in Kerala dialect, is the drink given to cattle. The main ingredient being the bran water got when rice was washed for cooking; or rice water, the water collected when cooked rice was drained. Normally banana peels and other nurturing bits and pieces would be added. Maybe, leftover rice too. And that would be given to cattle as nutritious food and drink)
Here, man and animal.. everyone had the same gruel. For a moment I felt my stomach churn at the thought of what was inside. But those moments were also that of self realization for me.
The cattle that we tend to. That we domesticate and bring up.. they are the same as we are.
Here these people took take care of their cattle, their animals, the same as they treated themselves and their children. Or maybe more. There was no life apart there. All lived the same. All life was the same. Whatever was available was shared alike by all. Man and animal.. all the same. The cattle at least had green grass to eat. Still, they shared with their animals whatever they themselves ate, and loved them as their own.
Hunger was the same for all. Giving and sharing whatever they had with their animals, they loved them as their own.
And now, strangely, I didn't feel any awkwardness anymore. And, a new light of awareness seemed to fill me.
Take the matter of that boy. At the tender age of four he knew the pain of hunger. Hungry or not, the first thing he did was to share it. He first shared the special food he got, and partook of it, the very last.
When desperately hungry, maybe I too would satiate my own hunger first, and only then think of others. But this child?
One of the many enlightening experiences that was kept in readiness for me to stumble upon on this journey..
I realize..... 'Journey is life.. life itself is the journey.'