When you are 32, looking back at your 21 year old version, what is the one thing you remember about yourself? Stupidity? Laziness? Being thinner? Well for me, the one trait that stands out most is Innocence. I quite remember how in the last decade innocence slowly escaped me (or is still escaping!). This story is about a time when I was quite innocent, some might say foolish.
This trip was a proper “rebel” act. It was summers of 4th year in college, most of the batch mates were graduating. Even after 4 yrs of college and trying different things like internship in Quality department of Hero Honda, trying my hands on Robotics, different courses in Psychology, reading activism Sociology by Ivan Illich, I was still lost in life. I had no idea what or why I was on Earth, let alone IIT. With nothing much to lose, I would engage myself in all kinds of random rebellious acts. One of these acts, was this trip to nowhere with nothing.
It was 2005, I was to go to a place called Mundoli, somewhere in Garhwal district, base camp for Roopkund trek. All I knew from a senior was that I should pass by these stations to reach Mundoli: Haldwani, Almora, Dewas. I was also told there would be plenty of public transport options available once I reach Haldwani or Kathgodam which is at the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttrakhand. I had no mobile, no camera, no reservations in any train/bus; just a piece of paper with names of towns written on it, 1700 bucks and IIT student card.
It is not possible to write about the entire journey here; it has been documented in a journal filling about 40 pages detailing each and every aspect of my trip. This post is about dialogues with a man I met on my way: The journalist in Gwaldam Guest House.
The journalist in Gwaldam Guest House
It was late afternoon; I was in a Sumo van, which carrier 8-10 passengers across towns. After 36 hours of journey from Kanpur to Lucknow to Haldwani to Almora, I was on my way to Dewas. Half awake, half sleepy, a young girl travelling alone, I guess I must have aroused some curiosity in the van. An elderly passenger asked me where I was going.
Koi rehta hai wahan? Kisse milne jaa rahi ho? (Whom are you going to meet there?)
Nahi, main wahan Garhwal Guest house mein rukungi. (No, I am going to stay in the government guest house there.)
Surprise. Akele? (Alone?)
Haan, mujhe Mundoli tak jana hai. (Yes, I have to travel till Mundoli.)
Dewas kaise jaogi? (How will you reach Dewas?)
Pata nahi. (Not sure.)
Abhi to sham hone wali hai. Dewas mein guest house nadi paar hai. Pahunchte hue andhera ho jayega. (It is going to be dark soon and the guest house in Dewas is far away, not on the main road. It is will be quite late by the time you reach there.)
Hmmm. What’s the big deal?
A stop came, some passengers stepped out. I saw outside, it would be sunset soon. After some time he spoke again.
Meri maano to abhi dewas jaana theek nahi hoga. Yeh sumo Gwaldam tak jaa rahi hai, aaj wahin ruk jao. Kal subah nikalna Dewas ke liye. (If I can suggest you, it is not a great idea to go to Dewas so late in the evening. Stay in Gwaldam today and continue your journey in the morning.)
We reached Gwaldam, all the passengers were getting down. The elderly man again said that I should not continue any further today. It is not safe to travel in dark. He also introduced himself. He owned a chemist shop in the main bazaar, gave me his shop’s name and asked me to contact him in case of any kind of problem. I was quite touched with his sound advice and offer to help. I decided to stay in Gwaldam.
The GMVN guest house was right on the main road. I got a room on the second floor. This was the most expensive expenditure in the journey so far, 200 bucks worth. The guest house seemed deserted. After freshening up, I went out to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets. I wish I had a camera. Gwaldam was an army base, sleepy and pretty town with almost no tourists. As the sky got darker, I went in to the dining hall. The hall was dimly lit but I could make out the benches and tables. There was a guy sitting on side of the table, I took the opposite side. The kitchen boy served us local food in thalis. Ah! The taste of freshly cooked hot food at the end of a long journey!
The man and I, we started talking. At that time in life, prisoner in a campus of engineers and scientists, I was hungry to know more about the rest of the world, to meet people of different occupations. This guy turned out to be a journalist for Amar Ujala, a popular local daily. He was responsible for covering news in the entire region of around 100-150 kms. I was quite excited to know about his work, how he found news, how he wrote articles, his team mates, etc. He wasn’t very open to disclose all this information, but still friendly to talk to. We finished dinner so he suggested:
Abhi itni jaldi to soyenge nahi, baatein karte hein. (We won’t sleep so early in the night, let us talk more.)
Haan, theek hai. (Sure! Why not?)
Aapka room kaunsa hai? (What is your room number?)
I gave him my room number.
Mera room number x1 hai. Aap chalo mere room mein, wahin baith ker baatein bhi ker lenge aur TV bhi dekh lenge. (Mera room number x1 hai. Come to my room, we can talk and watch TV together.)
Okay, main aati hun thodi der mein. (Sure, I will come in a while.)
I thought about his proposal and felt that there was no reason for me to be suspicious. After all, he just wanted to talk. I would learn a thing or two about journalism. So I went in.
As I stepped in, he asked me close the door to not let mosquitoes in. I did that, without putting the latch on. He was half sitting, half lying on his bed, watching TV and drinking. I took the chair against the wall, few steps away from the bed. We started talking again. He didn’t offer me a drink.
He asked me a lot of questions about myself. Told me some of the news he cover such as deaths, robbery incidents. He had his connections in all the main towns of the area. If something happens, they inform him, give him the information on the commission. It sounded quite dull and boring. The topics ranged from personal stuff, like family, friends to work, studies. By now, the sleeplessness of last 36 hours was catching up with me. I might have looked tired to which he suggested, “You seem quite tired, why not rest on the bed.”
This suggestion sounded dangerous to me. Even in campus, we make it a point to avoid sitting on boys’ beds in hostels. I sternly declined this offer, suggesting I will move to my room soon.
However, the conversation which followed next wasn’t something that I expected.
He told me how lonely his work gets, how sometimes he meets friends in guest houses and find ways to get over his loneliness.
I was listening uncomfortably, not knowing how to respond.
Then, he suggested that I can stay over in his room for the night.
Next moment, I stood up; quickly bidding him good night I stepped out of his room, came back to my room and secured it in.
I was quite scared at that point. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Then it occurred to me, how naive I had been. Marching into his room at night, to “talk”! Giving him my room number. What if he comes to my room in the dead of the night? I would obviously not open the door. But there were hardly any people here to call for help. What if he forces himself in? How will I save myself? Though scared, I was too tired to stay awake.
Next morning I was up early, got early and took the first bus out of the town. I left before the journalist could catch me.
Many years later, now when I think about that night, I see quite an innocent, you might say stupid, girl in me. Going on a journey like that alone, getting friendly with a stranger, excited to know about different occupations, not suspecting anything while going into a strange man’s room, frank and open in my answers, unable to foresee where the conversation was going.
During that trip, I had another long conversation with a contractor who was in construction business. It was during the return journey from Mundoli to Kathogodam. By that time, I had spoken to a lot of new people: a farmer, a dhaba owner, the dormitory keeper, a college student from Delhi. I was better prepared now. The conversation with the contractor was a different experience than the one with the journalist. I weighed my answers well, withheld private intimate information, was neither entirely true nor false in my replies, only discussed neutral non-personal topics, held my ground and didn’t let the other person cross the line. I realized it depends on me how much liberty the other person can take with me.
During that ‘rebellious’ trip some of the innocence left making way for much required maturity.