It’s a story that somehow fits into this blog.
Possibly, it’s a story that I should have written a long time ago.
But again, somehow, this seems the right moment to put it down.
Having been on the road since July 3, this truly beautiful country is accessible to all Indians (differences are so great that I have begun to wonder whether there should have been a visa system!).
Please take that as an aside; it’s not meant seriously. And, one who has had a tough time with visas in the world, knows what it’s like.
This story is about travel on the map.
Soon after my wife Minu and I moved to Pakistan in 1997, (with our older daughter Anushka), a priority was to have a place to drink and swim unmolested.
A friend in the US embassy was very helpful and we were to be given access to the American Club in Islamabad, which was part and parcel of the American Embassy premises.
On the appointed day and hour, Minu and I had to go to get pictures taken for our new photo I-card.
As our photos were being taken by two Pakistani gentlemen, I noticed that they had a big map of India open before them.
I asked them what they were doing with the map.
“Ham to dekhte, dekhte yoohin ghoom letein hein” (we just travel by looking at the map),” one of them told us.
It was such a simple statement. And, yet, so full of meaning that it came to my mind just recently.
I still think about what they said all those years ago; the simple joy of looking at the map and travelling even if you could not go across to Amritsar or to Pondicherry.
For them, in their work, this was a luxury they enjoyed – travelling to different places in India by map. No one – no government or visa officer – could stop them from their special and unique travel experience.
As I travel through bits of this colossus of a nation, talking to people whom I would have not normally met or taking pictures, we Indians should be grateful for the variety and distinctive histories we have.
Singularity and similarity to my mind are just boring; plurality and diversity so much more interesting.
Especially when you travel; physically or even by map.
Hampi (Bellary, Karnatka):
I’ve seen women do many jobs in India, but the boatwomen of Hampi taking tourists across the rocky Tungabhadra River, was a surprise to me.
They were down in the distance as I was walking back from the Vitthala temple, but the image left a powerful impression on me.
Given that I live in a near-woman-only household, and headquarters is quite powerful, and also having worked with many women bosses in my career, I am quite aware of the power than women can and do wield.
In the time that I was ill last year, I also saw the power of women (apologies if I make any of my male relatives / friends unhappy) in taking care of me. From questioning the doctors closely to comforting me in every way possible, they were critical in ensuring a more than full recovery for me.
And, perhaps, ensuring that I was fit and able to embark on a month-long journey without any of them being around was full ad final proof that I was as healthy as the next person.
But I am digressing. Or am I?
In India, women not only hold up the sky of the home, they also keep the office going. They are both the internal and external combustion engine.
In North India, we don’t see many women doing jobs that women do without a bother in the bits of southern India that I have had the privilege of travelling through.
Let’s face facts – the insecurity that goes along with being a woman in North India is so massive that many jobs which women should be doing as a matter of course – seem to be outside their domain.
From oarswomen to bus conductors, to bus station supervisors, to running home stays in Hampi, they do it all here.
Upon my arrival in Hampi, I had an immediate double agenda – to have a thaali lunch and access the internet.
I climbed the stairs to the Raju Rooftop Restaurant, which promised the internet.
As I walked upstairs, I quickly realised that no food was being cooked and the restaurant was not in use.
In a matter of seconds, I had walked into someone’s home. The lady of the house was at home and a niece or a sister was sleeping on the floor.
The internet was out, since the lady informed me there was no current.
I then asked her where I could eat a thaali.
She thought for a moment and said, “Main tumko khaana de sakti hoon.”
In a moment, I had a thaali with three rotis, sabzi and sambaar. (The rotis in this part of the world, BTW, are quite large). And, then I had a fourth roti and some more sabzi.
By then, I had realised that this was the family’s afternoon meal, which had been shared with me.
I paid Rs. 60 for the food to her husband who walked in just as I was leaving. And, then seeing that my water bottle was empty, the lady asked if I needed another. Yes I did. Twelve rupees more and I was on my way.
Her ease of manner, dignity and confidence along with an innate entrepreneurial spirit were truly impressive.
It takes a little more than 24 hours to travel by this train from Bhopal to Hubli from where I have to catch another connecting train to
Hospet and then go on to Hampi.
Thanks to Bishakha, I have a confirmed AC three tier berth on the train – although it’s a middle one and I will have trouble
manoeuvring my bulk into the berth.
I have this habit of checking the chart at the station to get to know the people around me, but since I was boarding the train from
Bhopal and it having started from Hazrat Nizamuddin, there was little chance of getting to know the age and the sex of the neighbours.
When I enter the B1 coach at 7.20 in the evening, it looks as if it’s after midnight. People are passed out. All sleeping soundly.
All very well for them; but not for me. I have to use all my persuasive powers to get an oldish lady to share the lower berth with me. I also
see that there are a few other youngsters who are in the passed-out mode.
There’s nothing of the confusion of the Tapti-Ganga – none of the tambakoo-chewing, poor India. This, I am soon to learn, is laptop
India (includes me, btw) that surfaces around midnight having slept through the day.
Soon after settling down, I begin staring at a grey-haired man on the side berth in front of me. He’s busy talking to people in his own
compartment of eight.
After staring at him for quite some time, I muster up courage, get up as if to go to the loo, stop near him, and ask, “Are you Madan
Talwar? If not, sorry.”
His response is equally quick: “Amit Baruah!”
Madan and I worked at the news desk in Indian Express back in 1986-87, when I was a trainee.
And, then, of course the journey changes its character. We are gassing and gossiping about just about everybody in journalism. And,
it’s great fun.
He tells me about his kids – the son is a chef running his own restaurant in Delhi and his daughter a journalist. I tell him about THE
WIFE (whom he knows as a striker from Indian Express) and when Minu calls they speak as long-lost friends.
After I sit next to him, he whispers that the other chaps in plainsclothes are policeman and they have arrested a man (clearly a
Muslim) who has open handcuffs on one hand only.
Turns out (the cops tell this reporter) that the man was wanted in a 10 year old robbery case in Kolhapur or Solapur I can’t quite
remember. He was arrested in Delhi because of info posted on the internet. They seem very pleasant with each other and I see the
man-with-the-open cuffs eating and talking amiably with his captors.
I tell Madan I quit my job (and the reasons for doing so!).
He’s going to Pune for work and, later, when he gives me his card near Pune, I find that he’s the President of the All-India Newspaper
I have no card to give him – for the first time in 26 years I am without an institutional identity related to myself.
Then I find that I have some old BBC cards in my bag. I cross out the entire card and write my name and mobile number. That does the
job quite well.
After Madan gets down, I meet Madhav and Zulaila (two separate individuals). Madhav works for Pepsico. He’s a food engineer (at
least that’s what I understand) and lives in DLF Phase-III and shares Bhupinder Singh Hooda as Chief Minister with me.
He’s from Gujarat and can’t bear the food in the North of India. “Why do I get paneer, paneer and more paneer for every meal?” We
all laugh together at his comments.
He shares a place with other Gujju boys and like good Gujju boys they cook Gujju food as often as they can.
(Like Anushka, Antara, Revu, Rishika, Ishana and Ilika, Nirati and Nidhi, all teenagers that I know, Madhav and Zulaila come to life at night.
When I got up groggily to go to the loo at night, both Madhav and Zulaila were busy watching films / serials on their respective laptops
and surfaced well after 12 noon).
Madhav gets off at Miraj junction and I tell him that he should design some healthy and tasty Kurkure-type substances for all the teenage girls and boys that I know. He flashes a smile as he takes off with his samaan.
Our conversation was in full flow by the time we reached Miraj.
I keep up the conversation with Zulaila, who is a young doctor doing her internship in a Belagum medical college. She’s a lovely girl from Delhi, who has learnt Kannada because she has to treat her patients.
This is her sixth year in Belgaum. Zulaila’s now making plans for her future post-grad studies. She tells me that there are people from all
over India in her college.
And, then the oldish lady, whom I had to try hard to share the common lower berth, pipes up when we talk about Goa.
“Aren’t a majority of people Christians in Goa and don’t they show off too much body?”
Among other things, Phiroze B.Illava is the Chairman, Water Conservation, Environment & Civic Consciousness, Lions Club of
He is also the grandfather of Jal and Divya, father of Anahita and father-in-law to Zal. They all have one thing in common – they are
Over the years, I’ve met Mr. Illava and known of his interest in water conservation.
When I reached Mhow from Khandwa on the heritage metre gauge railway, I understood that Mr. Illava had already taken some steps
to try and preserve this beautiful, under-known stretch of the Indian Railways.
Mr. Illava and I met at my brother Rajeev’s house at 11 am one recent morning. (Pardon me people, the days and dates are
beginning to lose meaning for me!).
So, he showed me all the letters (neatly filed; should make BrotherRajeev happy!!!) that he had written on the Sub: PRESERVERING
THE MHOW – PATALPANI –KALAKUND –CHORAL METRE GAUGE SECTION OF THE WESTERN RAILWAYS AS A HERITAGE SITE AFTER THE CONVERSION OF THE RATLAM-AKOLA SECTION TO BROAD
He’s written to the Railway Minister and the Tourism Minister, the Secretary Railway Board and even to the Prime Minister
Shri Manmohan Singh, whose Section Officer R.K. Das even acknowledged his letter!!
The letter from Lion Phiroze B. Illava, 143 Simrole Road, MHOW (M.P) 453441 dated 26th October 2010 on the subject mentioned
above opens on an apologetic note:
Sir, we realize how terribly busy and pre-occupied you must be keeping,
running the affairs of this vast and variegated country called India, and
feel rather diffident to approach you with this relatively minor matter.
But this concerns a unique piece of our ancient heritage, which if steps
are not taken to preserve it for posterity, would be lost to the nation
We are talking about the Khandwa-Mhow Metre Gauge section of the
then B.B. & C.I. and Holkar State Railway, now the Western railway,
situated in the South-West portion of Madhya Pradhesh. The line was
laid in the 1870s during the days of the British Raj. We are particularly
referring to a small section of the said railway between MHOW
CANTONMENT AND CHORAL stations. This section was laid through
particularly hostile terrain through the Vindhya mountains, comprising
of deep valleys and gorges, and steep slopes which even today require
two diesel engines to negotiate the steep tortuous inclines of 1 in 40,
where the train climbs almost 1200 feet in 28 miles.
In another letter to The Hon’ble Railway Minister dated 17th October 2010, Mr. Illava wrote why this section of the railway makes the
grade as a heritage site:
Mhow is a very convenient railway and situated not far from where
the MALWA PLATEAU ends with the forested Vindhya Hills following a
steep escarpment overlooking the broad Nerbudda Valley over 1200
feet below in a magnificent sweep from where one can see numerous
lakes and forests spread out for miles as far as the eye can see. From
Mhow, tourists, pilgrims and travellers can visit the world famous
historical Moghul citadel of MANDU, the religious Nerbudda Ghats at
ONKARESWHAR, MAHESHWAR AND MANDALESHWAR, the ancient
set of Lord Parsuramji’s rather Jagdananji Rishi at JANAPAO (over 5000 years old) from where twelve rivers emanate, one of which forms the Patal Pani Water-Falls. Janapao is a unique water shed, joining the Arabian Sea in the West to the Bay of Bengal to the East of this mightysub-continent called India. The Buddhist Caves of Bagh, whose tribal paintings and fabrics are now world famous can also be reached from here.
Mr. Illava is not opposed to the new broad gauge track, which might bypass the Choral-Mhow section altogether, but only wants this
route preserved and promoted for heritage and tourist purposes.
He fears that the rails on this route would be “uprooted and sold off to the ‘kabadis’ (scrap dealers) for a pittance”.
May I suggest to Bharatnama readers that they take this route to check out Mr. Illava’s claims for themselves? I am at hand to play
tourism and travel advisor along with Brother Rajeev and Sister-in-Law Ritu. (Sorry, I did not consult you both in advance!! But then I
am travelling and the signal is bad).
See you soon!!!!
I forgot to mention that Mr. Illava is young and bouncy in his early 80s.
India could do with many more Mr. Illava’s to make it a better place.