As the tourist economy shifts with the seasons,a bunch of young men waiters and fire-twirlers,tattoo artists and tailors pack their bags and move. There is work to be done and money to be made on the trail of the dharma bums
Slowly they trickled in,awakening the little Himalayan hamlet from its slumber. Wanderers from all stretches of India,they arrived in Vashist,Himachal Pradesh,to sell their wares,perform for the foreigners,cater to their needs and of course,to make money. A tattoo artist made his way from a Goan beach and a tailor from Bihar followed. Behind them were others. Word had spread,Vashist was the most popular tourist destination in north India this season.
They are nomads with a purpose and they move with the seasons,on the trail of the foreign tourist,the dharma bum. From the south,they start their journey tailors,chefs,waiters and fire-twirlers. The route,more often than not,takes them from the beaches of Varkala to the ancient city of Khajuraho; from the sandy beaches along Karnatakas coast to the bohemian enclave in Arambol,Goa. The trail ends in the villages found in the Himalayas. Like Vashist.
Resigned to a corner in the far right,on a steep alley,stood what you could call a stall. A man sat quietly,pedalling the sewing machine. A tailor at yet another shop selling hippie wares. For the wanderers, he sighed. Harem pants,bright orange in colour,even neon green,in shapes and styles that are not as yet in the mainstream,which an editor of Vogue has called emerging fashion. Sadrul Haq,31,at the machine was making one such item,his face often confused. Ive been a tailor for 16 years now. Its here that I have really played with design, he said. In his hometown,Islampur,Bihar,it was mostly same style salwaar kameez. He rolled his eyes followed by an immediate frown. This is not easy either,to sit so high up in the mountains. I come from a flat land. This height plays havoc with my head, he said. In March,Haq packed his trunk from Anjuna in Goa and travelled all the way to the mountains.
Manu,who is from Rajasthan,rents and runs a clothes shop in the town for six months a year. He leaves Pushkar as the season ends. Its maddening,the rush to get the stalls at the bottom. I arrive early in February, he says. The first two weeks Im here,I find it hard to breathe. I make half the amount I normally make, he said.
Altitude makes you breathless. Your pace lags and a flight of stairs becomes a challenge,especially if youre a smoker. Manu smokes,but he smokes only one type of clove cigarette: Indonesian Gudang Garam. Thats expensive given how much I earn, he said. Thats Rs 12,000 in a good month. When the tourist season ends,his shop reverts to a trekking store,no bright colours,no sign of the travelling tailor or the imported cigarettes.
In Vashist,currently over 150 young men have arrived before season. They come every year in droves. They all speak fluent English but most cant read or write. There are the the waiters and tailors,and then there are the performers. Some have wild hair,some play guitar,others sing and some can twirl fire between their fingers. Fire-twirlers are the rage now. They learnt how to spin the art from foreign travellers. In Arambol,they perform on the beach and in mountains,anywhere where water is found, said Sanju from Darjeeling,who arrived here three months ago.
I studied only until class 8. I had a family to take care of. I left Nagpur five years ago. A friend of mine told me there is good money here, said 27-year-old Ehsan Khan. He runs the Bookstore and Incense Shop from a rented room on the first floor of a house,again a non-permanent venture.
He has made a hole in the wall,a window so that people notice his shop. He has a collection that can rival any bookstore in the metros,though he cannot read or write. An English guy told me what people read. I then saw what sold well at others bookstores,what they didnt stock,and got this collection, he said. A fine book picked up there was The Princesse de Cleves,believed to be written by Madame de Lafayette,for Rs 200.
Lounging at his store was a friend he met in Khajuraho. Yoga teacher Shalish Vaidya,32,had his own theories. I feel as though India is not ready for my thoughts and my ideas. I teach foreigners. In the month and a half that I have been here,Ive taught 12 foreigners, he said. He was somewhat camera-shy,it takes away a part of the soul,remember me as I am, he said,with a proper British accent. Vaidya finds himself travelling where demand for his services exist; he spends a few months each at Puri,Varkala and Khajuraho before arriving in Vashisht.
Communities form. Together they eat,sleep and live. For instance,the boys at Big Fish,Vashishts most popular restaurant. This is a flamboyant bunch,flamboyant not in their costumes,but in their manner. Loud,good-looking and cocky,they would be the cool gang in school. Monu,a local who hangs out with this lot,says,In log ko saab gori ladki milti hai. The manager there,wearing a jumper that reads The Business studied English at his home in Panauti,Nepal. He started as a waiter in Panjim and then became a manager. Along the way,he learnt from the travellers how to twirl fire. Im not just a waiter now,Im a performer, he said.
By the waterfall,a steep (and scary) walk down is Rockeys Waterfall Café. There,the locals told us,you can find the short and small tattoo artist from Nepal. Deep is indeed short and small. He said he wore original,not fake,Ray Ban glasses. See,this is my art, he said as he walked around asking men to lift their tops,pointing to their tattoos.
Business is good because every fifth person in this circuit,dressed in clothes perhaps from Japan,wants or has a tattoo. The material is expensive. It all comes from Delhi and the maintenance is costly, he says. The machine was a gift from his Russian teacher,Geodkof Vladmira. It was he who really taught me how to tattoo. Russians are good at shading. Id been playing with the machine since 2003,but it was in Arambol that I really learnt the craft, he said.
After 11months of work,they return home. Saroj from Kalimpong has been in the industry for 13 years now and is a chef par excellence. Yes,it can get tiring,the wages are never secure. Labour policy kya,is there even a mention of seasonal workers like us? he asked.
But then he hesitated: I could never go back to working in a hotel. I started in a hotel in Nepal,then it was Bombay. Look around. Are you working now? In the backdrop,the sky had cleared after two days of rain and the snow shone whiter then the white-washed walls in New Delhi houses. The sun glowed,not quite like gold,and on the mountains,it created magic.