SCENE FIVE : HARIDEV (HARI )
HariDev is a frequent visitor to the Ashram in Dun, having gotten here just a year ago. He has been spending most of his time meditating. The kirtansin the evening is when other members collect to pray, meditate or just sing in praise of God.
Hari, as he is fondly called by the other occupants of the Ashram, had a score to settle with himself. Born to rich parents in the states, he never felt at ease with all the comforts available to him.
Always at the back of the class, and unable to comprehend his circumstances as a rich kid, Hari withdrew more and more into a life of solitude. He chided his father’s ways and became all the more resentful after the death of his mother. His dad had been having a long standing affair with a woman whose own husband had committed suicide.
Hari felt miserable seeing his father destroy not just his family, but also someone else’s. He maintained a detached relationship with his father. Whenever loneliness tormented him, he escaped to the study and buried himself among the huge collection of books. He searched for a world sans his father and whatever he subscribed to. He read books on war and capitalism, and he began to hate everything his father spoke about.
He had questions about himself, about his country and about the many wars into which his president was dragging young boys like him. He liked playing the guitar, and was for a brief period part of a band that spent less time jamming and more time rolling joints. Narrowly scraping through college, Hari was caught between the crisis of modern nations and an innocence that had unclear answers.
Often, the self-imposed solitude was suffocating. He grew up reading books, played a few sports and often spent time away at camp sites in Arizona. The hills often called out to him. It did help him clear his mind, and allowed him to engage with himself in the presence of the true rustic nature in its untouched and unpolluted self.
The decision to move to India was impulsive. That’s what love sometimes does.
In 2011, Americans took to the streets as part of the occupy movement, fed up with the large corporations dictating terms to the average American public. The movement captured the imagination of the unemployed as well as the salaried class. Harihappened to be a part of many of these public meetings and vociferously shouted slogans in support of the movement. The movement lost steam after the struggle to occupy the main commercial centers in America could not be sustained. Those who supported it went back to their lives, and so did Hari.
The images that stayed with him were of the many nights he spent on the streets listening to passionate young volunteers rallying people to continue the struggle against crony capitalism. Young students were trying to assume political roles after years of believing that there will be a messiah who will bring in the change. Suddenly, it was these individuals who were leading the movement.
In many of these meetings, Hari noticed a young girl, yelling out, holding posters, and giving speeches. Her name was Rita, short for Muneera, who was then in the states to complete her thesis on the Adivasis of south Asia.
Muneera had an infectious smile and an even more catching ability to deliver passionate speeches. It was young people like her that caught the attention of men like Hari. Her knack to hold the attention of the crowd and speak to them in the simplest language won her many hearts, one of them Hari’s.
In one of those meetings, he went up to her and introduced himself. He asked if he could get her a bottle of water. After all, asking her out for drinks would have seemed an inappropriate thing to do at a time when those involved were fighting for the future of a country.
She smiled at his offer, and agreed to spend the next one hour on a park bench allowing him to scan her mind for all the questions he had.
The meeting had lasted half hour more than had been agreed. Hari realized that he had never felt so good before. She took him through the history of the modern world in less than half an hour, explaining everything from the rise of modern states, the coming of the family, and marriage as an institution that supported the state. Then she spoke of American double speak and the way big corporations rob the poorest of the poor of their lands and dreams.
They exchanged numbers and agreed to stay in touch. This was not the first time Muneera was asked for time. There had been boys, girls, and elders who came along for a chat with Muneera, and she always obliged.
Now with the movement drawing itself to a close, there was no more of Muneera for Hari. He had nothing to look forward to except to hunt for books on the things Muneera spoke so passionately about. Then, a few months later, he tried to get in touch with her again and was disappointed to know that the number was no more in use. Having just her first name, he decided to re-activate his old social network account and tried looking for her. He then tried adding search key words which also met with failure. ‘Muneera India’ would throw up a million hits. He then looked up the directories of the many universities in America, only to be disappointed again, until one day he typed in the most obvious key words that had somehow dodged his attention.
He typed in ‘Muneera, occupy movement’ and what he saw next did not surprise him. There were blogs that she had written, her speeches were even on YouTube, and he even had her full name now. She was MuneeraJehangir from Lucknow, and until recently was at the Chicago university in the department of South Asian Studies. He desperately wanted to get in touch with her.
Hari’s calls to the department of South Asian Studies in Chicago University would get transferred to the Dean’s office, where no one was in a position to help him. Nobody there knew her present whereabouts. Hari just couldn’t find a plausible explanation for her sudden disappearance.
The little time that he spent with her had taught him more about the world than he had understood in the many years he kept wondering about his existence. Was she apprehended by the FBI? Hari ruled out the possibility of her having been expelled by the university, because if that was the case, they would have told him so when he called. He knew that if she had gone back to India, his chances of finding her would be close to nil. The sheer size of the country bewildered him, and he knew that he would never be able to find her. He realized that he was growing despondent. Disappointed with himself for not having called her earlier, he went back to his usual ways. He tried to find his peace in his books and guitar. However, his mind couldn’t help but wander around her. She showed up in his mind with a frequency that scared him, probing him, talking to him, and leading him towards more questions.
This couldn’t go on too long. A few months later, in early 2013, he decided to go to India. The literature he had been reading led him to ask questions which seemed to have their answers in just one place – India. India was where Muneera had learnt her politics and from where she had come to the states to speak sense to his countrymen.
He owned a fortune by virtue of being born to a rich father whom he did not love. He knew he needed to spend only a small fraction of his wealth to live in India. He spent the week before his departure to India with his books in the study, gathering more information about the country. He had always been passionate about the hills, and the country promised him a lot to make him feel at home. He wished to find some fulfilling and meaningful work that could occupy his mind during the day. Then there were stories of how John Lennon backpacked around India in search for his answers. He read through several books with the curiosity of a fortune seeker. The more he read, the more he craved to be in that country.
Emulating the life of a celebrity was a teenage obsession in America, and Hari decided to take a cue from Lennon’s life. He told himself that he will learn this new country, like Lennon, Che Guevara and those who couldn’t take the hypocrisy of the modern world. He wanted to give himself the best shot he had at discovering himself.
Hari had landed in Delhi exactly a year before his current meditation session at the Ashram. Not knowing what to expect and completely oblivious to the attention he was getting, he went about picking up his luggage; a rucksack with a few clothes. He decided to use his card if he needed anything new and had no clear map of his intentions. He knew he wished to get to the hills and had identified a place named Manali. Before he headed to Manali, he was to spend a few days in Delhi.
On the second day after his arrival, he went out for a walk through Lutyens’ Delhi, the capital region of the largest democracy in the world. He couldn’t but admire the monuments that had stood witness to many a political power play. This was a place too many people had fiddled with. There were ruins indicating war and turmoil despite which this diverse place had held itself together. Muneera had spoken about Naxalites in central India and how they have been challenging the power center in Delhi. Here in Delhi, one could only see signs of a strong state. The police and the army ensured this democracy worked despite the nation’s complex problems arising out of its contrasting diversity. Yet it was this diversity that made this nation so captivating.
After a week, Hari got on to a bus which would take him to Manali. The drive to Manali took him from the plains of north India towards the youngest mountain ranges of the world. The Himalayas spanned the entire northern front of this massive country. Back in the prosperous days, they played a significant political role standing guard against any external aggressor. Today they are known for their high peaks which are adventurously scaled by mountaineers and trekkers. These hills occupy place in popular lore in the country as being the seat from where great sages preached the civilization on family, polity and sex. This place had spoken so much and yet so little of it was known.
Manali welcomed Hari with the fragrance of pine and the sound of the gushing Beas. In May, Manali is a busy place. When the summer heat sweeps over North India, Manali becomes one of the favorite destinations for people seeking refuge from the heat wave. The Beas, which rises from one of the glaciers high up in the hills, goes on to feed the plains of Pakistan. It turns darkish grey resembling a sewer during these months owing to the huge amount of human waste that is poured into it. The place has to wait until the monsoon, which happens only after September, to regain its pristine look.
Until a few decades ago, Manali did not attract the kind of tourists it now does. There were days when the streets were empty and the place assumed a quaint look about itself. Hari would see none of that. What received him was a bustling town in the summer of 2013.
The many travel guides that he had read on his way to India helped him identify this homestay in old Manali. Run by an old couple who charged two dollars per night, it seemed like the ideal place for him to begin his journey. He had nothing planned out and was happy to have found a place to stay. Old Manali had its temptations too. Manali grew the best Hash in the world and, given his predilections for it, he succumbed to it rather soon. This had another advantage for Hari. He often ended up meeting some fascinating people. In the many cafes that he spent time, he met students, writers, and musicians from across the world and connected with some brilliant brains. It seemed to him that this place attracted people who had their own reasons to be there.
Hari knew he too had questions for which he was seeking answers. He hoped he would find them here. Yet, at times he had doubts if he was making any headway at all.
Janak Ram owned an apple orchard and leased out a couple of his rooms to tourists every summer. His friend Luv Singh, who runs an internet café, had told him about Hari’s booking. Most of the villagers here used Luv Singh to secure bookings for their place. The income helped them tide through the summer months.
As Hari approached Janak Ram’s gateway, he met his wife Sarita who was milking the goats. Janak Ram would return from the orchard only in the afternoon. The house was just a short walk from the bus stop. Old Manali is located atop a hill, and to get there one has to walk past the market place and then past the cafes and finally into the little village. The moment he stepped out of the bus, Hari was mobbed by a group of taxi drivers asking him if he wanted a house or a suite or just a hostel room. Hari managed to talk to a small shop owner who told him that Old Manali was a short trek away from the bus stop.
Old Manali was a world in itself, having rooftop cafes on the top of every other home. Located on the hill, it gave a bird’s eye view of the whole Manali town as well as the famous Rohtang Pass which was a long drive away, but appeared invitingly clse.
Hari was led to his room by Sarita who seemed to be accustomed to having guests over. She asked Hari to use the common bath if he needed to freshen up. His clothes could be washed near the village well, and that he could eat with the family if he chose to. Hari, having grown up enjoying many a privilege his birth had bestowed on him, suddenly found himself without a proper home, no laundry and a common bath. This meant waiting for one’s turn to answer nature’s calls or having to make do with cold water. People here weren’t used to water heaters. Instead, when it really got cold, they bathed in the Sulphur spring close by. Firewood was stocked up during the summer, but was used sparingly. The old and infirm could enjoy the luxury of hot water. The young had to battle it out with nature, and this would be the case with Hari too. He was aware that life would throw him lemons in India and he’d have to learn to make lemonade, and if he wished to seek out the answers he desperately wanted, they would not come to him out of a miracle.
He didn’t know for how long he would live in Manali. He was not keen to have an extended stay there. He wanted to find Muneera. He wanted to know about this land, and he wanted to meet the right people and have the right kind of conversations.
Hari spent the next few days taking long walks around the town in the morning and spending his evenings reading in the café and meeting fellow travelers. Nothing significant was taking place except for the feeling of destiny that Hari would experience when he would sit at the window of his room and stare at the blue sky. He was in the cradles of one of the oldest civilizations. He had left behind his home and the trips to Arizona. He had virtually become incommunicado. He himself was just trying to figure out his future plans. However, he knew that he was enjoying his present state.
A couple of weeks later, when he had arrived at the sulphur spring for a bath, he met a man named Sanjeev. He was an affable young man who was in Manali as part of an NGO that took up environmental issues. He was there to spread awareness about the danger of unabashed felling of trees in the region. He was an environmental researcher. The pollution of the Beas hurt him immensely and he wanted to spread awareness among the local groups about the importance of preventing it. Sanjeev would often say one lung of the humans is the tree. “What we breathe out, trees breath in, and what trees breath out, we breathe in. We are cutting our own lungs.”
Over time, Hari met several activists who were engaged in a variety of issues that affected them the most. Living with Janak Ram gave him an advantage. Janak Ram’s place was adjacent to Sam’s café which had become a favorite haunt for Hari. He made many friends over coffee. A few days after his meeting with Sanjeev, he was to learn that his friend had been arrested along with a few others under various acts of the Indian Penal Code. The others at Sam’s cafe informed Hari that Sanjeev had been mobilizing public opinion on an array of issues to the discomfort of the local authorities. He had put to good use the Right to Information law to unravel many cases of corrupt deals. Prime forest land was being given away to private contractors to build power plants under the pretext of which a massive timber trade was underway. Muneera too had spoken about these things, and so Hari wasn’t surprised. Manali was much like the world he came from. There was this template of joy, leisure, fun and adventure behind which were the everyday struggles of the people living there. They were struggling to keep alive the very town that the tourists like Hari were mindlessly violating.
The occupy movement had taught Hari a few lessons, and so he could not gather the courage to help Sanjeev. He was quite taken aback by the way this country functioned, and he knew that he would be asking for trouble if he did not fight his instincts to get involved. He continued to bide his time in Manali getting to know more people, spending more time in the community bath, and getting used to the Indian food. The Rajma-chaval had slowly begun to appeal to his palate.
Then one day, Sushil, Janak Ram’s son, arrived. A trekker and biker, Sushil made his living out of taking groups up on high altitude treks. He also guided bikers who wished to do the Manali-Leh biking expedition. It was a welcome development for Hari. He got to learn a lot more about Manali from Sushil. They discussed about the Manali-Leh biking expedition. The same evening, Hari was online mining for more information about the expedition.
One website said, “Khardungala was the highest motorable pass in the world. Every year, thousands of bikers make their way from Manali to Leh. In the year 1999, when India and Pakistan were involved in a bloody war over control of the Kargil sector, this highway was used to transport troops from the mainland to high peaks of Kargil.”
This reminded him of his camps up in Arizona. Those were treks that he made, and though he spent many days up in the hills, he hadn’t experienced the pleasure of biking through any of them. Learning about their trip, the guy next door, Robin, a student from the States, asked if he could come along. “The more the merrier”, Sushil had replied.
The following day, they had their bags packed, petrol canisters filled, rations stocked, and the three slowly emerged out of Old Manali. They would camp by the road side each night and then proceed the following morning.
Getting there meant putting the back through the grind. Five days on a bike, negotiating glaciers, landslides and rationing fuel before it ran out sounded exciting to Hari. The many bikers who had done this road believed that it is just when the last drop of petrol is consumed by the engine that one sees the only petrol pump on the entire stretch. Once the tank is refilled there, the bike has enough in it to see one through to Ladakh. Leh is a winter desert, home to the Bactrian camels that once helped run the trade between China and central Asia. It is also a site of great Buddhist heritage.
The journey began at 5000 feet in Manali. The road snaked its way through to the Rohtang Pass notorious for numerous accidental deaths. The motorists passed through knowing there will be better sights to fathom. The view kept getting better and the air thinner. Hari was in the company of the heavens. As they got higher over the next few days, it seemed to Hari that time had stopped for a thousand years and waited for him to come and ride through it.
It was as though the bike had waited to reach Leh to run out of petrol, and they were already in the vicinity of the Petrol pump. After refueling, they went past Khardungala. Many a battle had been fought here, Hari thought to himself. Here too, man’s desire to tame nature was evident. Plaques announcing war memorials or banners speaking about bravery told Hari about the never ending crossfire this place must have been caught in.
Hari thought that biking was the best way to reach Leh which stood at 17000 feet. The air hardly has any oxygen, and the gradual climb by motorcycle allows the lungs to expand and get prepared for the high altitude breathing difficulties. Hari was informed that they would be visiting some interesting monasteries in Leh. Also, there would be an opportunity to visit some of the schools that were being run by a group of volunteers.
They checked into one of the homestays in Ladakh’s main town. With an attached bath and a dining area that served freshly cooked meals, this place was just the kind of welcome Hari was expecting after a tough ride to the hills. The Thupkas, momos which Ladakh was so famous for, were diligently polished off with bread.
As the three were retiring to their rooms, Robin tapped Hari and said, “I’ll be going to check my mail at a computer point in the town. Good night, guys.”
“Good night, Robin. Make sure you get a good night’s rest. We’ve got a long day ahead of us.” Hari said with a smile, and went to bed.
Hari woke up at the break of dawn and decided to take a spot on one of the rocks. He sat there looking into the horizon. It was a clear sunny day, and the sky looked beautiful. He thought it went well with the brown look that Ladakh offered. Being a winter desert, it meant the place had little water. However, the freezing winter offered spectacular sights.
It was not long before he began thinking about Muneera. He wondered where she was and what she would be doing at the moment. The people he had met in Manali were so full of energy when it came to activism. Some people had wanted Hari to join them too, but he just did not manage to gather the courage to do it. He wondered what fate Sanjeev and his friends had met with. No one seemed to be bothered. No one seemed to know what had happened to them. Hari did not even try going to the police station to ask about his friend’s wellbeing. Instead, he had trooped off on a bike to see a pretty place. How was he any different from the privileged kid he was in America where he would travel to Arizona while the world burnt itself? He had no answer.
Seated on the rock, he wondered how long it would take the escapist in him to muster enough courage to face the reality and its consequences. He had begun to feel sick about this empty feeling that reminded him of losing his battles with himself. The light at the end of the tunnel did exist, but all it would take was courage and desire to get there. It was essential to stop running away like he did when he fled the states, then Delhi and now Manali.
Ladakh was the roof of the world. Where would he go now? Would he break down, call his dad and ask for him to be rescued? Or, would he start from the very beginning, and then come back to reflect on this moment in Ladakh? Hari lay flat on the rock and stared at the clouds floating by aimlessly. The sun was pleasant, and the warmth made him lazy.
The way the mind pulls us in opposite directions is the most difficult experience a human can endure. Fear, anxiety and relationships are a formidable combination that pulls us in different directions. They don’t give us one right or one wrong. The distinctions are blurry. Hari was facing these extremes when it was time for dinner. He had spent the whole day on the rock, and as he made his way into the room where the food was placed, the weather behind him had gotten really cold. The sun had set, and now it was time to get ready for another sumptuous meal in Ladakh.
Hari thought the answers would come soon. He was looking forward to the visit to the school the next day. Somehow he thought it would help. The whole night he kept tossing and turning. An array of emotions played hide-and-seek with him. Bursts of bravery that told him to go change the world and an excruciating dilemma took their regular turns to make brief visits.
He woke up early, and his legs took him straight to the same rock on which he had sat the previous day. He had carried with him a bowl of porridge served in the guest house just after tea. The sky was blue again. He felt like a Buddha when he sat there. He felt an uncanny peace and clarity of thoughts descending on him. He told himself for the umpteenth time in his life that he would not fear.
He came back to his room, packed his bags and walked out to see Sushil and Robin tending to their bikes.
“Hey guys, good morning”, Hari called out to them.
“Hari, where have you been all morning?” Sushil asked curiously.
“I was just taking in the fresh pure air of Ladakh.”
They got on to the bikes and headed out towards the school.
The plan was to see how it was run, talk to the volunteers and kids, and see how help could be extended. More importantly, Hari wanted to see how life on this side of the world was.
The school compound welcomed them with paintings of little elephants and birds. Hari guessed that the children had done it. He got off his bike and entered the school. What he saw was certainly heartening. Some children were making clay models while some others were having fun on the swings. Some teachers were taking classes, and then there was this nice sitting area which overlooked the valley.
As he walked towards one of the rooms, he observed this one child who was playing with a stick, alone and away from all the kids. He smiled to himself wondering how the kid’s choice to be alone had resemblance to his own childhood habits.
Hari met some of the volunteers and the permanent staff over lunch. They discussed their vision and motto. He felt that such a model would never help a child. He knew that the volunteers were soul searchers like him who had no previous experience in teaching. Their tenure was not fixed and they could leave whenever they wished. The permanent staff was again unskilled. His heart went out to this group of people who tirelessly tried to hold this school together.
On his journey back, Hari thought about his trip to Ladakh and the issues he faced with himself. It seemed like there were a lot of people who shared his views on life. The volunteers in the school were on the same boat as he was, it seemed.
He had not had enough time on the rock the previous day. On returning from the school, he found himself back on the rock. He asked himself the same questions again. This time he had clearer answers. The resolve to overcome himself was even stronger, and so was the urge to know more about the questions that had brought him so far away from home. He wasn’t sure if he really belonged to his home any more.
Hari returned to Manali on the tenth day. Meanwhile, Sanjeev had been released and Hari found him at Sam’s cafe, talking as enthusiastically as ever with his friends. He spotted Hari and with a grin came out to greet him. Hari could not see any sign of contempt on Sanjeev’s face. They had grown on each other. Perhaps Sanjeev would have appreciated Hari coming to the police station with any kind of assistance. He was aware of Hari’s involvement in the occupy movement. But Sanjeev had none of this contempt that Hari presumed. Men and women like Sanjeev went about their work without actually worrying who was on their side. They spoke passionately about their issues to spread the ideology they believed in.
In the evening, Hari decided to visit Luv Singh’s computer center to catch up with what was happening back home. He had fought off the temptation a few times before he had embarked on the trip to Ladakh. Soon, he was online. It seemed like election season was catching up and all energies were being pulled in to ensure the ‘best man wins’. Timothy Arnold was making waves in the States. Hari, for all his politics, was not impressed with the speeches being made. What Tim spoke about was a lot like what Muneera had said. His passion to change the status quo was well appreciated, but Hari with his available knowledge about politics was convinced that this was double speak. Was it possible that a party that did not agree with the world on climate change, was xenophobic, indulged in wars, and gave wealth to the rich actually could make a difference?
Among other news was President Richard’s promise to reduce gun trade. Here was a man who wished to demit office with some sense of moral responsibility. Aware that such a decision would divide the lines between the republicans and the democrats, he felt it was extremely essential for the control on gun trade to come about. Weapons were doing more harm than being the defenders of peace. Controlling the gun trade would only be scratching the surface of this colossal issue. It would set the tone for control over more harmful weapons like the weapons of mass destruction that America uses on the world.
On the way back, Hari entered Sam’s café and chose a corner to read a book he was carrying. He must have spent about an hour and half, and was about to doze off when Sanjeev called his name. It was getting late by Manali standards, and Hari was surprised to see Sanjeev.
Taking a seat next to him, Sanjeev enquired, “Tell me about your trip, Hari. We didn’t manage to get time to talk about it.”
This eased the mood or rather Hari’s guilt about fleeing Manali just when the arrest happened.
“The ride was beautiful. We rode for hours and occasionally stopped for some hot tea. The view was breathtaking, and so was the shortage of air supply.”
“We also visited a school where I spent the day playing and teaching the children. It was heartwarming to see so much passion in those children’s eyes even in the absence of proper resources.”
Sanjeev smiled and said, “I remember my trip to Ladakh like it was yesterday. The sunset brought peace to my heart and the sight of mountains all around made me feel lucky to be born in this country.”
Sanjeev had travelled the length and breadth of this country. Activism had its perks. “You meet new people, all fellow travelers in the fight against power. It’s the road less travelled but buried under this road are the immense pleasures of conscience which comes easy to those who tread this path.”
Hari did not fail to notice the glow in Sanjeev’s eyes when he spoke.
It had already become very dark in Manali. Hari couldn’t help yawning. He liked Sanjeev’scompany, though.
“I plan to head towards central India to join a farmer co-operative which is protesting land grab by a cartel of rich corporates.”
Hari listened intently.
Dwelling further, Sanjeev talked into the night exposing the nexus between the state, big businesses and local NGOs in suppressing the rights of the weak and marginalized. Imperialism, according to Sanjeev, did not end with the defeat of Hitler. It took new forms as it always had in the long history of capitalism since its advent a few centuries ago. He always questioned placing the entire blame for World War II on Hitler while the beneficiaries of the war had different faces.
Sanjeev was so passionate about the things he believed in. His energy was infectious and this rubbed on people near him. Hari probed him further about the issues Sanjeev was raising. There was a shadow of Muneera all throughout the conversation. Hari almost felt it was Muneera speaking through Sanjeev’s voice.
“I have to leave in the morning, I’ll be catching a bus to Delhi, and from there I will be heading to Raipur. Let’s get to bed then.”
Sanjeev rose from the chair.
“Yes, we should. I want to apologize for not visiting you at the station. I also need you to know that I am ever so grateful to having met you.”
Sanjeev smiled and raised a hand.
“Please don’t be apologetic. We are always prepared for such highhandedness from the state.”
“Can I join your struggle from here on? I want to contribute.” Hari said with a child’s eagerness.
Sanjeev had over the years pulled in many people into his struggle only to see them leave. The fight required strong resolve but few had it. Hari would only prove his sincerity if he stuck on and fought on the side of the oppressed like many have done, leaving their homesteads and attachments.
The movement is often compromised by those who join it only to switch over to the other side, and then turn around to puncture holes in the fight of the oppressed. Hari, found his calling in Sanjeev. He knew he would meet many more people like Sanjeev who did what was right for the world. Was not this the reason for his arrival in India? He wondered. His deliberations would continue and perhaps the fear would not leave him so easily, but he needed to do this. He owed it to the years he spent being timid and non-confrontational. He owed it to Muneera who taught him the power of the truth.
“This is not going to be easy. Are you sure you can remain loyal to the movement even on the face of the worst adversity?” Sanjeev’s voice had taken a sudden sternness.
“I honestly believe this is my calling, Sanjeev. My decision is a well thought out one. You won’t regret.”
Hari extended his hand and Sanjeev took it.
The following morning, they left Manali for Delhi. Instead of taking the air conditioned bus, they took an ordinary bus. Hari was now to live by the rules Sanjeev laid out. They were accompanied by Sanjeev’s other friends who had come calling on Manali, like Hari had done. They would be getting back to Manali a couple of months later to check on the progress of the movement they were a part of. The local villagers had decided to call for a social audit of the power plant, and had threatened the government with closing down the highway if their demands were not met.
For Sanjeev, this was a small victory having made the village leaders see light concerning an issue that affected them. Whether they would prevail over the local power brokers and emerge victorious in this struggle only the next two months would tell. For now, the focus was on the central India region of Bastar.
Jyoti, one of Sanjeev’s colleagues, was responsible for writing the content of their daily activities and posting it on their online blog. This gave them visibility, and it attracted more people to their cause. Known as the Independent Socialist Forum, the group was made up of students and activists who gave this organization their time. Their meetings were held in different parts around the country, and hardly any information was ever circulated via-email. They often used the good old postal service to stay undetected. Though there was a delay in the arrival of letters it was a sure way of keeping the cadre united.
The lethargy of the state was evident in the way every letter they wrote went undetected. The online blog only highlights the hypocrisy of the government in various states as well as the protests that the forum lent its hand to.
The bus was a rather humble representation of the one Hari had ridden to Manali. The seats were fixed like prison room benches. Covered with a thin upholstery, the cushioning was meant to make less miserable the bumpy ride that awaited them.
At night it felt like the passengers were rhythmically swaying to the beat of the bus. Every passenger was asleep and their heads moved in sync with the movement of the bus. Hari stayed up unable to find enough room for his legs. Nor was there place for him to rest his head. When he woke up the next morning, he realized that he must have gone off to sleep in the position he was in because his neck felt stiff and sore.
Delhi had become hotter and humid. Until they could find a way out towards Raipur, they were to go back to their respective homes and wait.
“You could stay with me, although I must warn you that I don’t live too well”, Sanjeev suggested to Hari.
He was to later find out what Sanjeev had meant.
Sanjeev shared his room with a couple of other guys who laid out a mat on the floor to sleep. With the arrival of Hari, the room would only get hotter and stuffier. With hardly any ventilation, and the room doubling up as kitchen also, Hari almost wanted to get out and stay at a hotel.
The three of them could have afforded a better place if it wasn’t for their passion for activism. Like Sanjeev, his roommates were involved in other movements. They all held respectable qualifications in either sciences or social sciences. The decision to focus on the larger picture meant giving up on corporate salaries and an affluent lifestyle.
Ravi had cooked the dinner consisting of lentils and rice with some pickle. He had graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology many years ago. He was employed with a multinational company, and was living a comfortable life until he gave it all up to join an organization that worked with rag pickers. Living on his savings until now, he would soon be required to find a part-time job to support himself in Delhi.
Joseph was the other room mate who was an independent researcher working on big mines in Central India. Their paths had crossed in one of the many public meetings that are often held in Delhi. Here different groups come together to rally around a particular cause.
The four were quick to sleep once dinner was over. Before closing his eyes, Hari thought about the way these men were so kind to him and how ,despite having so little, they offered him what they could. Perhaps these personal assets, the little of the kind they had, really didn’t matter as long as there was a new entrant into their fold.
India was growing on him each day, and this was just the early days for Hari’s great discoveries.
He did some homework on what to expect from central India. The web threw up some startling revelations. It is said that central India is where the British lost a lot many of its officials and soldiers to Malaria, a vector borne disease found in tropical regions like India. It was going to be hot, water could not be trusted, and then there were all these mosquitoes.
Hari decided to visit a general physician before leaving to check on the precautions he should be taking before he left.
Dr. Ravi Gupta MBBS met him in the first half of the day in his office with a string of certificates put up on the wall and a bed which was used to examine his patients. The clinic was a short walk away from where they were staying.
After hearing Hari out, Dr Gupta advised him to get a shot each for almost all the diseases he had heard of. The doctor also advised him to carry mosquito repellants, water purifying tablets and ORS sachets in case he had an upset stomach. He was also advised to cover his hands and feet even if it would be very hot where he went. Hari listened attentively and nodded in agreement.
All this talk about medication made Hari so paranoid about his visit to Raipur that he wished he only carried medicines to this place and nothing else.
They were to leave the next day. Hari had paid 300 rupees which was a little over 4 dollars to travel a distance of 1100 kilometers. That was a steal by American standards. Before leaving, he made sure he had his currency changed and other necessary provisions stocked. Back in the room where Sanjeev lived, he was welcomed with a smile by the other occupants. All the preparations Hari was putting into for his journey seemed quite hilarious to them. This always happened when they met a new member of their group who was taking on a new role in life.
The next morning, Hari and Sanjeev left after a cup of tea and biscuits. Hari had begun to get used to those discussions over tea that had Indians occupied at every corner of the bazaar. Tea had a life of its own here with so many different styles and flavors on offer.
The train to Raipur was to leave at around 8:30. This was his first experience with the Indian railways. The seats were a little like the seats on the bus they had taken from Manali except that they were a little thicker and they allowed you to sleep. The trains had different classes and they had opted for the second class. The first class was expensive, Hari was told.
Made of steel, these trains got really hot during the day. Sanjeev made Hari at ease by telling him that there will be plenty of tea during the journey and that he could savor the many culinary delights of India as the train stopped at several stations.