It is the sort of summer when birds fall out of the sky, dead, and neem trees shed half their newly blossomed flowers by mid-morning. At Parvat Ram Kevat’s little restaurant, where we walk down for brunch every day, arguing about the disbursement of our meagre budget, we hear hectic rumours that it is going to be the hottest summer in India ever. Such is the metallic white intensity — of rumours and mornings alike — that the views of the mighty Jahangir Mahal looming in the distance seem to dissolve into a crackly haze.
In the afternoons, we stand in the verandah of our modest lodgings and watch the hours pass; it is too hot for conversation or analysis, even for taking notes. The passage of pilgrims dries up in these hours at the Rajaram Temple, which is right next-door, and except for two children — a boy and a girl — who have been designated by their respective mothers to manage their little shops, just below our verandah, selling bangles and vegetables respectively, the entire lane is bare.
It is May, 2010, and the days are long in Orchha.
After our first night, despite our budget constraints, we shift to a room with a cooler, though power cuts are frequent. It is for Rs 300 a day as compared to the no-frills closet that came for Rs 50 less. It means one of us must sacrifice her Nutella pancake at Parvat Ram’s establishment, to keep to our per diem budget of Rs 500, zealously accounted by the other.
The budget was the only certainty in an unspooling adventure that must play out against the dizzying possibilities of our country’s roads and colours, eccentricities and politics. Earlier that January, we had traded in the frail fences of our domesticity to embrace the abstraction of life on the road, ostensibly to write a book. We managed to convince our publishers that there is a pot of meaning to be had at the end of the long road, but between the two of us, we are much less certain about what this “heat and dust project” would culminate in.
It is only later, when we were finally writing the book, we realised what the budget really did: when you look through a frugal prism, time contracts and expands. In the cheapest buses, which take hours and hours to get from point A to B, packed with people and livestock, time is the sum of everybody’s patience. In the gigantic forts, time contracts to an urgent sense that history was enacted here, just yesterday, and is still lingering in the stairs. And in the middle, between the buses and the forts, there is only one currency to engage with time, to hurry it or slow it down: stories. Indians are generous with their stories.
But we are to figure all this out later.
Now, after days of journeying elsewhere, we find ourselves in Orchha, and with due respect to Buddhist monks who were cautioned against sleeping under the same tree more than three nights in a row to avoid forming attachments, we sprout roots — and how.
A mellow, clean village by the tinkling Betwa river, with a thriving temple and staggering historical ruins dating back to the 16th century, Orchha is the kind of spot you stumble upon after encountering ghosts (in Shivpuri) and clatter (in Jhansi), and then revel in its (still) relative obscurity as a destination. Already three days in, the sun acting as a gigantic tourist-crusher, we feel like we could submit to Orchha for life.
Our lodge stands right next to the Rajaram Mandir — in fact, they share a common wall. In the other direction, it is a short walk, past halwai shops with mounds of sweets, to the general hub of the village. There is Parvat Ram’s establishment, with its world famous thin-crust pizzas made in a chulha, a PCO from where we make calls, and Mr and Mrs Sharma’s travel-agency-cum-cyber-café where we check our email. And then, down the clean road past the post office and the large room where panchayat meetings are held, there is the path to the imposing Jahangir Mahal.
Our touristy duties done, we like to dawdle at Mrs Sharma’s travel-agency-cum-cyber-café after brunch, where one of us picks out postcards while the other, softened by her stories, forgets to nitpick about spending. Mrs Sharma, in her late thirties, is a pioneer in Orchha, a full-time middle-class working woman who manages the store while her husband takes foreign groups on tours around the village, and often up to Jhansi. She has always been a city girl. She never covered her head. And yet, after their initial doubts, all the neighbourhood shopkeepers have come to respect her dearly.
Mrs Sharma potters about the shop and tells us of the Gwalior she grew up in — school, college, marriage, everything. When her husband and she heard about the great discovery of Orchha by firang backpackers, they decided they would move here and open their own business.
It was a pristine village at the time, untouched by the stamp of traveller-chic that now imprints its restaurant menus and guesthouses, all pineapple lassi and homestays-with-well-baths-and-crafts workshops. Her husband decided to specialise with Italian tour groups. As it happens, there isn’t a single guide here who knows Italian. Chinese, Korean, German, French — yes. But not Italian. The nearest place with proper Italian classes is, unfortunately, Delhi. So they came up with an elaborate plan. Classes are on Monday and Tuesday afternoons. On Sunday night, Mr Sharma takes the night train from Jhansi to Delhi. He attends class in the afternoon, spends the night at a local hotel, attends class the next day, and takes the night train back to Jhansi. He’s bought a head-lamp to read at night on the train, prepare for the classes.
“Exams are coming,” Mrs Sharma says with a smile, proud and anxious, “Though I don’t know how he will do.” At that moment, as Mrs Sharma channels Bengali mothers we have known all our lives, we fall a little in love with her. We assure her that he will, of course, do very well.
We talk about cities and villages, new trades and old, modern women and traditional women. Once, we meet the smiling Mr Sharma, with a dashing helmet in hand and his trusty bike outside. It is Mr Sharma who tells us to go to Khajuraho next. We should just reach the railway station (walking distance) by six-thirty in the morning, buy general tickets and wait for the Jhansi-Khajuraho Passenger (Unreserved) train that leaves Jhansi at six-fifty and stops at Orchha subsequently.
The next morning, at six, we pay our dues to the hotel and leave, eyes crusty with sleep. The station is small and picturesque. We get our tickets, and sit down. Seven-thirty, seven forty-five. Eight. Eight-fifty! There is no train in sight. A bunch of people are sitting around us patiently, waiting for the train. Meanwhile, we traverse every inch of the platform seeking information in our pretend Bundelkhandi. We have coerced our co-passengers into showing some agitation. But the old uncle and the three high school girls and the farmer and the woman with a large dao smile placidly and urge patience. The train will come when it will come. By the time it is 10.30 am, we are bouncing up and down. There is no rush, not really; but something in our city-attuned bones judders and jumps.
Finally at 11 am, fully conscious that following Murphy’s Laws we might hear the train shrieking into the platform the moment we step out of the station, we stiffly bid adieu to our co-passengers — who are still quite mystified by our madness — and rush out. Since we have already authored elaborate goodbyes the night before, we do not stop in the market — though the pineapple lassi beckons — and we take an auto to Jhansi. That’s how we’d come to Orchha in the first place. Then, after much confabulation at the bus stand, with co-passengers and random hawkers, we find ourselves on a bus to Mauranipur, which is 60-odd kilometres away. From Mauranipur, a dusty, busy town, we are to take a connecting bus to Chattarpur, from where buses to Khajuraho are dime a dozen.
The Mauranipur bus heaves urgently for almost an hour while people’s entire homesteads are packed up onto the carrier above the bus, along with their bicycles. Accompanied by children, these men and women, hardy-looking, with faces weathered by the sun, seem to be moving permanently to where there is work. It is a large group, and in the bus, their voices surround us on all sides.
As we enter Mauranipur, there will be a moment when we are to glimpse a train careening down the tracks, almost a vision in the sun.
It is only later in the evening, after lunching in Chattarpur, then taking an over-crowded trekker to Khajuraho and settling into a cheap hotel room there, that we will find out it was indeed the Jhansi-Khajuraho Passenger (Unreserved) we saw. As it happens, it reached Khajuraho at the same time we did. And it is only years later, when we write the book, that we will wonder, part-idly, part-regretfully, about all the stories the old uncle and the three college girls and the farmer and the woman with a large dao would have told us on the train journey we did not take.