Remembering Dada

Amongst ourselves, a few of us jokingly referred to him, in private, as “Mutton” – A pun on his love for food and a play on his surname – Ghosh.

Dada, is what everyone called Soumitra Ghosh and Dada is what I called him too. Dada ; not as a grandfather, but as a big brother. A different matter that he was our boss at the Hindustan Times, yet, he did conduct himself nothing short of a big brother. Unlike ceremonial photo editors, he had a fine set of teeth and he did bite, often those who came in the way of what he thought was a good photo or a photo story.

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Dada and I, out looking for photos to go with a story on the collapse of mills in Bombay

A master of decoy, I got a first glimpse of it when he called me over to his place citing an emergency. On reaching he handed me his camera and I ended up being the photographer for his rather private engagement. I saw him use this skill over and over again, on assignments, in edit meetings and with unsuspecting photographers who thought he was offering them a job. He foxed me yet again when he quietly took a photo of me, under the pretext of testing a lens that had come from repairs. My smiling face was published in the paper next day, alongside a list of HT photographers who had won awards at the Asia Media Awards of 2006. Our entries were edited, drafted and sent by him and I speak for myself when I confess that I had no idea, he had sent my entry. He did so the next year too.

Dada was a photographer first so as a photo editor he knew what it takes to be out and about doing six to seven assignments a day. He covered the Bombay riots of 92-93 on foot and largely alone, unlike the prescribed way of travelling in small groups. I was 11 years old when Dada made a simple yet stunning photograph – shot from the back, unseen faces of rioters, with their hands behind their backs holding stones, awaiting a call for action. He told me he went on foot because a colleague of his had assured him that could repair his bike, but after several months, the fellow gave him his bike in a huge bag.

He would often say that literal is not good enough, lateral is what one should aspire for. Don’t show me what it looks like, show me what it feels like. For a special issue on the deluge of 26/7 in Bombay, Dada fought real hard for my photo on the cover. In all honesty, I didn’t think it was hot enough, compared to Vijayanand Gupta’s image of cars submerged under rain water on the Western Express Highway. Gupta single handedly covered the floods, while the rest of us were stuck or fell in open manholes. He walked the entire city, wading through chest high water and the entire issue had his photos barring one or two by the rest. The photo that Dada was gunning for was of our domestic help as she tried to cross the road, streaks of hard rain, lashing away at her rickety umbrella.

He had this uncanny knack of picking images that we didn’t feel for but were stronger. Yet, we were never made to feel small for not being fully aware of what is in our memory cards. It was just fatigue or the fact that as an editor he is more detached and impartial than the photographer. It was also tough to argue with someone of his calibre unlike some folk I meet now who couldn’t notice a good picture even if it came and sat on their heads. If he were around, he’d probably say it’s because people are over exposed to more mediocre images than before. I remember coming back from an assignment where I had to photograph a small painting event for slum children whose homes were to be razed in a few days. I had this graphic photo of kids hands, dramatic light and some paintings they had made but he opted for a portrait of a child. The photograph went as a standalone image with a long caption about the girl and the slum demolition was deferred and a plan for rehabilitation was put in place.

Compositionally too, he made some fine decisions. He once chose a photo of a child staring at a single rain drop, shot by Vikas Khot. The photo conveyed a certain kind of fear that the city felt, immediately after the floods of 2005. Dada also cropped the uncle on the sofa out of a photo that won me the Ramnath Goenka India Press Photo Award in 2008.

I guess he learnt these things from his stint in England, or maybe the films he saw and the books he read. I received a lot of positive feedback for a story I had done on the Paralympic selection trials in Nagpur, Dada fought to get me an entire page in the Sunday issue of the paper, but a night before it went to print, he told me that while the photos do celebrate the differently abled, they don’t show how difficult even mundane things really are for them.

What could I have done?

“Did you see the toilets and bathrooms where they stayed? Were they able to use it easily?”

And it hit me, nothing shows government apathy better than placing disabled athletes in a hostel with no lifts and Indian toilets and the story could have had a different direction altogether. I was so taken in by the graphic appeal of the surface of the event that I failed to scratch underneath it.

Or maybe he learnt all this from his brother, a painter himself.

In 2005, I stayed at their home in Naktala and his elder brother told me a story about the time lil Soumitra sneezed at the dinner table. Everyone was embarrassed and they hurried to replace the plate of the person facing the boy. The gentleman took out a kerchief, wiped the plate and said “It’s alright he’s just a child, and he’s healthy enough. I don’t think he will transmit any germs.” Maybe that’s where his childlike temperament came from.

Or maybe it came from the close relationship he shared with his niece Chandrika.

His brother also told me about this time at a Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal match where a photographer shot a mildly embarrassing photo of Dada. The photographer had zoomed in on the bench to photograph a reaction photo of the winning team and in one corner was Ghosh, not taking photos, but celebrating his favourite team’s win!

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I spent eight months at home nursing a broken leg in 2010. My friends would visit often and I think I consumed over 200 movies and dozens of books during that period. Dada and his niece came visiting on new year’s eve with Biryani from Hanglas, a chain of fast food joints that he owned. Suddenly, I realized that we had actually transitioned from the boss-employee relationship to some sort of buddies and I guess he was aware that it would really suck to be alone at home with a fractured leg. I also realized that he was no longer just a photographer who likes food, he had made good use of his palette and was now an entrepreneur.

Big brother also tried fixing me up once with a very sweet girl. Am pretty sure he knew I’d have driven the girl up the wall, I was too jumpy a person to spot a good thing back then! But his heart was in a good place so I shared a cup of coffee with the girl and drove her to Andheri station instead.

Ever since I knew him, I have known him as someone who’d fall ill often. If not hypertension, if not diabetes, it was always some thing. He once fell asleep on a chair, with a lit cigarette in his hand, and woke up with a jolt when flame touched skin. One night, at a tea shop in Andheri, he looked up from his phone and asked me if WOW is spelled as W-A-U-W. A man in formals sharing the table with us found it funny, but curbed his smile when he noticed that I didn’t. One could sense that Dada is probably coming apart.

But he loved a good time, and to be honest, in those head-spinning days of the resurgence of newspaper photojournalism, you had to be crazy going through it sober. A half a dozen strong photo department for a city this big, we’d slog all day and on most nights, we’d end up at Midland. The owner’s son loved us and would keep the bar open long enough, often at times till dawn. There is a fucking bank now in its place.

Back in office too, the photo department was set up in the smallest place known to mankind, the size of two ordinary cubicles and next to the server room. All six of us could never fit in and someone had to stay out and to kill time so one of us usually socialized with the desk, some more trade-craft to ensure we get the best display for our photos. Our tiny room was always well stocked with food and Mohua, Feni, Black Label.

Name it and we had it.

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Dada and I stayed in touch even after I quit HT. He’d discovered whatsapp and used to send me funny forwards like Johnny Lever’s skit on an argument between a Punjabi and Bengali over who is responsible for Bollywood’s origins. He also sent me a speech by Dimple Yadav. I saw only four seconds of it and swiped it away. I saw Dada on a news channel once, standing behind Akhilesh Yadav, taking pictures but largely flummoxed at something. I sent him a screen shot and he was quite amused at his clumsiness! Self-ridicule was another cool thing about him.

Praise without a pointer or too was rare and he offered me that once, just once, when he read my piece on S Paul. I can’t think of any other time when he has done that. Maybe he related to S Paul’s jibe on how he made a photographer out of an ass. Like him, Dada too played a major role in the careers of many a donkey, including me.

That year, he asked me join him for Yadav’s 3 month long campaign with two other photographers of my choice. All of a sudden, Dada stopped answering my messages and calls and I was left to figure that the deal didn’t work out. The incident left me red faced in front of the other two, who had gone to great lengths to make adjustments in their schedule. The fallout of digital communication – the lack of response as if the problem or query will auto resolve and vanish – had finally infected him too.

He did reach out to me after several months, wanting me to interview a singer friend about the influence of Begum Akhtar on her life. I did the interview but I couldn’t write about it, to be honest, I didn’t have much material to work with and I was pissed at the embarrassment caused by the gig that never happened.

Dada had enough material though. He wanted to write a book on a photographer’s view of the world. He even pitched a few ideas to Sameer Nair, then the CEO of Star but nothing happened. He wanted to start a school for photojournalism somewhere in Noida but I don’t know if that materialized. For us though, there was never a time that he didn’t have an anecdote to narrate.

Like the one I will remember him for the most.

One night, after a heavy day and heavier rain, I was about to depart from Midland a little early and Dada requested me to drop him to his place on my way home. This was a time when driving under the influence was a lot more rampant than it is now. He sat in the car, and changed his mind and asked if we could go someplace to buy cigarettes. I drove towards Worli where we bought two packs – one for him and for me, parked by the sea and smoked a few cigarettes but he was quiet and gazed at the water drops strolling down the windshield.

“I was doing a story in Rajasthan about a factory whose waste was polluting the groundwater of villages in a ten kilometer radius. I took lots of photos, climbed on a tank to get aerial shots etc etc. But, on the day of my return, I heard the sound of drums emanating from a small cluster of huts. I followed it and saw that a wedding had just happened and the girl was being sent off to her new home in a truck which had the entire dowry that her father could muster up. The boy sat on the left and the girl sat beside him and the driver was busy chewing tobacco waiting for the rituals to get over. The groom removed his shoes as the girl’s father prepared to wash his feet before departure. The utensil, a wide pan, had the same brackish polluted water I had been photographing. I took a photo of the scene; it moved me a lot for the only two droplets of pure water were in the eyes of the father and his daughter.”

Did that photo ever get published?

“No, it rots somewhere, buried deep inside a black hole called the India Today archive.”

Be As Tall – As Tall As Paul

Based on where you stand and how you look at it, the world is either extremely crappy or painfully beautiful. Am currently smack in the middle of it. Not a pretty sight, yet a relief to have been touched by its beauty.

Five whole days of it.

They came to me from the master, who unlike others, never called himself a master.

A photographer.

Less of a photographer and more of a craftsman on some days, more of a student than a master on most, yet, equally, beautifully flawed like you and me.

A human.

More than a year after we met, he called me one afternoon and in a deeply nervous voice asked a question many uncles and aunties ask me on long train journeys.

“Are you married?” A little taken aback and mildly amused, I said – “no”.

“Are you interested?”

I said – “I could think about it, what do you have in mind?”

“I know someone. When you come to Delhi, I will introduce you to her.”

I said okay, and we hung up.

I must confess I know very little about S Paul. I doubt anyone can claim knowing him besides his immediate family. I often heard from people that he is difficult, temperamental, angry and reclusive. Others say that his work is too scattered, too many singles, not a concise body of work nor a theme connecting them all. Short sighted readings at best, because just like the world, it all depends on where you stand and how you look, at him.

There remains no doubt of his mastery of the craft. People complain that there is a disturbing lack of evidence though. Well maybe, but the defining quality of his photos is his childlike curiousity and instinct. It’s a two way street and wonder what stops viewers from being curious and seeking S Paul? Look around, if not his work, traces of him in other people’s work, in your own lives is easily identifiable.

There is another quality that set him apart, preparedness and his rigour. He had a camera with him always and irrespective of the weather he would be out making photos. Like Bill Cunningham, or as has come to light now, Vivian Maier. The tool to draw out the responses built inside the triangular intersections of his brain, heart and the outside world was always on his shoulder or around his neck. Always ready to make pictures, as if the camera is just another part of his body. When the heat was bearable, he often wore a suit, making him, undoubtedly one of the most dapper looking photographers of our country.

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Am in too pedestrian a position to wax about his photographs. I haven’t been through the kind of chiseling that he or his favourite contemporary Kishore Parekh had been through. But, one has to be made of stone to not notice how relatable his photos are. How infinitely simple they are. A buffalo in water, a pigeon in flight, an elephant on a street, a puddle ahead, a man at work, a tree in conversation with another tree, cat family, two donkeys and a road, four friends, five friends, eid, republic day… , Pranab Mukherjee at home, Indira Gandhi on a tree, my son Neeraj, my son Dheeraj

My wife Sinder

In 1966, he entered a photo of the elephant and his mahout walking on a Delhi street in the annual World Press Photo contest. Back then, the contest had only one winner in each category and his photograph came a close second. If they had a three tier ranking system as they have now, the honour of being India’s first World Press Photo awardee would have been his. 

An undiluted simplicity is the most endearing quality of his photographs. He sometimes made cryptic photos like the one of a dead tree branch, shot from an angle which made it seem like a bird picking twigs to build a nest. There’s very little bullshit when it comes to S Paul and a man of that nature is bound to have a low tolerance for bullshit in others too. You can mistake it for arrogance, difficulty, reclusion, indifference, etc depending on where you stand and how you look at it!

Like many of my generation, we never saw him work a scene, but from descriptions by others, he was, as they say in jazz circles, a cat!

On the first day of our meeting, which lasted a good 7-8 hours, he would leap from one topic to another. He opened books and brochures and award citations and letters and one exhibition catalogue and reminisced about them all. He showed me this tiny sepia tinted book, which had a very cryptic set of macro shots, all about the study of scale and perspective. The photos had a freestyle text running alongside with the title – As Tall As Paul.

As he unveiled himself I kept thinking to myself, I wish I had someone along to record this on video. I wish I had just set up my damn iphone on video mode. I wish I could pull my weight and make him understand how important his words are and what a great gift it would be for future generations if he would just let me record our chat.

On my way back, while I was on Nizamuddin Bridge, he called to tell me that he had changed his mind and wasn’t interested anymore in being profiled. I felt like leaping into the frothing river below but I muscled up and played a few emo cards. The cat changed his mind and agreed only on one condition, that I send him a draft based on today’s material. It was yet another test, like that give and take that our parents put us through often. I saw through it and gave him a draft, which he okayed and we were back on track.

He was a different man the next day, a little more welcoming, a lot well rested and wanted to waste no time sitting indoors. So we walked around. A group of kids flung balloons at him, he knew that they did so only because he had a camera in his hand. Reprimanded them but kept his camera in his bag and walked ahead. Once in the safe zone, the Sony was cupped in his giant palm again. He took photos of a broken piece of glass and I tried to photograph him while he did so. He sensed what I was aiming for, quietly, without my prodding, he moved a little to his left. His reflection on the glass entered my frame and his body moved out of it. Past the gurudwara, he hummed the first four lines of his favourite song – Saawan Ke Baadlon.

When we were sitting in the park in Surya Nagar, I had asked him about the title conferred on him by a magazine – The Henri Cartier Bresson of India. I had a feeling that he doesn’t enjoy the title much and he insisted on being called as the S Paul of India, if referred to as anything apart from his name. Most of us would kill to be compared on that scale yet Paul wasn’t. He was well aware of Bresson’s genius and he felt he didn’t match up to it at all. Bresson travelled the world, while for Paul, his neighbourhood was his world. Bresson shot with a Leica, while Paul was happiest in the company of a new lens, a new camera. All one had to do keep him busy was introduce him to new gear. A lot like that genius child we have all come across in our school classrooms who could knock off the most complicated problems in a jiffy! 

If a comparison must be made, the closest would probably be Eugene Smith’s years of photographing the outside world from the confines of his loft or Winogrand’s rigour. Paul wasn’t fully exposed to both photographers but used to see their work often in the second hand magazines he would purchase from the streets of Old Delhi. Yet again, he was aware of Smith’s stature and Winogrand’s grungy aesthetic and rubbished the comparison. He liked the sound of Paul Sahab though, a title that probably originated either at home or during his years of government service or from the mouths of the many men and women he has mentored.

A few weeks went by and our editor wasn’t sure if I will ever turn in the story. So much information, yet it still seemed so little. My friends helped me out, colleagues slaved over it and I finally cracked the first draft. On reading the first draft, he was furious. He hated it and accused me of having an agenda. I had quoted him on some topics, which, in retrospect, I feel he told me in confidence, as if I were his buddy. And there I was, a photographer with no previous experience of a long form story of this nature, having had his first draft quashed and being asked to redo it all. I am also someone from a newspaper background, where we were conditioned to spend all our day looking for that one photo, that one moment that will edge the others out. I didn’t know how to do options and this dented my morale considerably.

The final draft, the 9th one,  was about 9000 words and my colleague Madhavankutty Pillai, also my senior was a bit shocked on seeing it. He ran his scissors over the piece and reduced it to half – removing major chunks of Paul Sahab’s personal life. He relented and allowed me 500 more words. The story was published across 4 spreads, and anyone who works in a magazine would know how prime that real estate is.

Much has been made or unmade out of his relationship with his brother, Raghu Rai. As outsiders we will never know much and it shouldn’t concern us. Our focus, if we have learnt anything from the two great minds of photography in India, must not be swayed by their personal lives.

A year after the publication of the story, we hung out again at his house, it was a humid Delhi monsoon day, his birthday.

He showed me more photos, more books, more magazines and was disappointed at how fake and fragile the photography community in India had become. He expressed deep regret and concern at the way some folks acted as gatekeepers, the lazy nexus between curators and some “artists” and how the focus now is more on the projection of one’s own image than one’s photographs. He also wished to meet Reza, whom I had met earlier that year in Bombay. Reza too wanted to meet him, but while he was in Delhi, Paul was in Kerala or Rajasthan. I can’t recall the exact destination, but I was happy to hear that he was finally travelling.

On my way out, he offered me sweets. He didn’t eat any himself. While keeping the plate back on the table, he miscalculated the distance and his long hand knocked down a glass. Paul Sahab’s wife and a domestic help came running and asked us to vacate the room. The master had an embarrassed smile on his face but forgot about it once we sat near the window. 

Not a big fan of cellphone photography, after a healthy play of some more emo cards, he agreed to let me shoot some iphone portraits of him. He also let me record two small videos of him, only after I assure him of one thing. As desired, I promised him that till he is alive I will not show them to anyone or post them on any public platform or share it with any TV channels. “After am gone, you can surely show it wherever you wish,” he said.

I jokingly asked him for something in return. A photo book: a memoir or a mammoth volume of books – of his finest photographs and his stories. 

He laughed and said, “Jald hi, only if you promise to help me with it.”

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Iphone portrait of S Paul at his home in Surya Nagar.

 

 

The Mourning After

Last year, on a blistering Saturday afternoon in Bombay when I read the first tweet about the earthquake in Nepal, my brain jogged back in time to 1993 and the city’s response to the Latur Earthquake. I recalled watching my parents and neighbours collecting clothes, medicines and food for the survivors. Much later, I photographed the scale of devastation and the rehabilitation in Bhuj, a few years after it happened during one of my initial outstation assignments for the paper I worked at.

As an immediate response, I called our Editor seeking permission to be dispatched. He told me to take it easy and that he shall take a call on it later. From my experience as a newspaper photographer, am acutely aware of getting there fast, if not always first and I was dejected to not be on an 8pm flight that my friend was manning. It turned out to be the one of the last ones since the next day Kathmandu airport was shut.

The next morning I was told by our bureau chief to go to Nagpur for a story on farmer suicides. Reluctantly I agreed, and tossed two shirts, a pair of shorts and slippers in a bag containing two cameras. No laptop, no chargers since it was a one day trip.

At Bombay airport on Monday morning, a few metres away from my plane, I answered a frantic call from our bureau chief asking me to call our Editor. I stepped back from the bus that would take me to the aircraft and made the call. He insisted I dump the Nagpur gig and head to Kathmandu instead. How I get there would be my problem. No reporter, no money, no warm clothes, no flights and the roads were shut too. He also said that if I don’t go, he will dispatch a reporter or seek contributions from freelancers. Exactly the kind of situation one can either shine through or sink under and he knew that this was just the kind of trigger needed to push me into the assignment. I boarded the flight anyways, waited a while at Nagpur, took a connector to Kolkata and slept a night at a shady hotel near the airport.

In the morning I received a camera battery charger from the cool chaps at Nikon Kolkata, thanks to my friend Naveen Krishnan who works in their Bombay office. My mentor and veteran photographer A Srinivas, who was flying in from Bombay got me some warm clothes. We were all booked on the only Air India flight to Kathmandu from Kolkata scheduled to take off around noon. A grim young man sat facing a window of the departure lounge of the airport, gazing longingly at the plane, scheduled to depart two hours earlier. Mashreeb Aiyal, 25, told me that his name is an innovative union of his parents’ names, Mahesh and Bandana, connected by a word for the divine – ‘Shri’. His parents were unaware of his arrival from Jharkhand since he had not been able to contact them yet. When we finally took off, the sky was roaring and we circled in it for a good 8 hours. Closer to Kathmandu, the clouds had cleared, and from my aircraft window, the city looked like a Gothic reflection of the starlit sky above. The poorly manned Tribhuvan airport was packed with listless travelers, waiting for that one flight that would transport them back to the warm confines of their homes.

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Mashreeb, lost in thoughts at the airport while we tried getting hold of a cab.

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Listless tourists stranded due to the earthquake, wait for a flight home at Kathmandu airport Nepal.
Just as I stepped out, the ground beneath our feet rattled again. The shop selling sim cards was empty and unmanned and there was no way to inform home about my arrival. A little ironic though, to call home and say that one has reached safely.

Have I? Am I truly safe in here?

It was almost impossible to find a taxi to anywhere and most hotels were full. Mashreeb gave up and chose to walk home. He invited me to join him and offered to let me stay at his place but I declined. The hotels in the city were over-booked, but the guests did not sleep in their rooms. The mere thought of perishing in a foreign land to an aftershock was enough to make them pay for a room and yet sleep outside. Just like the scared locals who also slept outdoors, on the lawns, by the pool or any other open space they found comfort in. Some had set up their own tents in parks and other green patches such as the golf course.

After a bit of haggling, we found a cabbie who took us to a hotel, which I would learn in the morning, was a stone’s throw from Pashupati Ghat – the cremation grounds. The hotel had a few cracks but was a reasonably new structure so we bunked in. It also had wifi. I later put out a post about the hotel on Facebook, which was also my way of keeping friends and relatives informed. That post landed up on several journalist resource groups and in the next two days the hotel had only journos from all parts of the world.

As I lay down on the bed, my thoughts travelled to a few days before, back home in Bombay. On a warm April morning I had chosen to confess my affection to a woman I was close to, after holding them back for a long time, only to know that she didn’t feel the same way. The earthquake assignment, in the coming few days, would prove to be a great lesson in perspective and it provided me with yet another chance at using my negative feelings to arrive at some sort of a positive outcome. Watching thousands try to recover their memories from the rubble of broken homes, made me realize that for some of us it is merely a position of privilege to mope about a broken heart.

At the crack of dawn, Pashupati ghat hosted the first of many cremations of the day, an old man who succumbed under the weight of the ceiling of his room, done in by a slab of concrete that was probably the last thing he saw at night before he fell asleep. A few minutes later, the deceptively calm city woke up, grudgingly, and I hitched a ride with a biker and made my way to Bhimsen Tower. Unlike the earthquake in Bhuj, where huge portions of the town were reduced to rubble, Kathmandu was spared that fate. Most of its concrete structures were still erect and I often saw confused journalists wandering through its lanes, wondering what all the fuss is about—where is the rubble, the flattened city, the punishing stench of death, the starved survivors that they came looking for?

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Brothers waiting for a priest to begin with the last rites of their eldest sibling.

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A woman mourns the death of her grandfather during the cremation of the patriarch at the ghats near Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.
An architect friend, Sonny Singh, updated his Facebook status with an astute observation: ‘Earthquakes don’t kill people, badly constructed buildings do’. He’s probably right. The buildings that came crashing down and swallowed thousands in Nepal did seem like the weaker ones of the lot. A conversation between the owner of Annapoorna Sweet House and a customer hinted at the earthquake being nature’s filtration system. A government employee stepped in and rubbished their claims, insisting that it’s not a natural calamity but the after-effect of all the drilling and tunneling by the Chinese beneath their ground.

At Bhimsen Tower, locals used their bare hands to clear debris. A human chain – of men, women and children, passed bricks and tiny blocks of concrete to be dumped on the periphery of the structure. Some of the men wore helmets to protect themselves in case the rest of the tower collapsed too. They were all trying to get to the source of that peculiar stench of decaying human bodies. While they cleared debris, others took selfies, and some like Toran Bahadur Sanuwareven picked up a brick to take home as mementos. From a heritage structure to a new-age marvel of disaster tourism, the main landmark of this tragedy had been turned into a spectacle by Nepal’s own.

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A young boy takes a selfie in front of the collapsed Bhimsen Tower in Kathmandu, Nepal.
We have all at some point in our lives witnessed or seen pictures of slums and illegal buildings being razed by municipalities, but Mother Nature pulling it down is another thing. Losing one’s home in a few seconds to a natural disaster can be a pretty disorienting event, even for the strongest willed. However, the act of making a selfie in front of quake hit homes and monuments was the most confusing scene I witnessed during my week and a half. It seemed too easy to jump ahead and call it heartless but this is probably the way future generations might remember incidents of consequence. Looking at everything through one self is probably going to be an accepted way of documenting modern history. After all said and done, everything we suffer, enjoy, do and live through is a deeply personal experience indeed.

At night, back in the hotel, hot-boxed under the second hand smoke of fragrant weed, I imagined what if all of history was recorded as just – a series of selfies, Godse taking a selfie after he shot Gandhi, Capa’s dying soldier pausing for a selfie and so on.

As a self-imposed diktat, to the extent possible, I chose to stay away from direct images of people grieving. It just didn’t seem right, especially when it is possible to convey the same point with subtler images. Ever since I junked the camera and took on the role of a volunteer during the floods in Kashmir in 2014, I realized that sometimes not making photographs is far more helpful. Given my current mindset, I anyways felt like I was being rather voyeuristic and detached when pointing my lens to record people at their weakest. The hurt within meddled with my boundaries of objectivity, a conflict between the unspoken personal and the much debated professional codes of ethics. I also chose to focus less on scale and instead photographed the minutiae, like a boy collecting bricks or the broken photo-frames in a quake damaged house.

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To begin the process of reconstruction, a young boy carries bricks that weren’t damaged from the rubble of his home in Sankhu, Nepal.

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Portraits of a family and a clock displaying the time the earthquake struck are seen on the first floor of a damaged house in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
 

To make matters worse, I had just one and a half day at my disposal to put together a story, for which I had dutifully begun by interviewing Mashreeb at Kolkata airport. Around noon, the weather, suddenly, had other plans. The sky packed in and it began to rain, forcing the thousands of survivors camped on the ground at Tudikhel to look for shelter.
Later, at Bhaktapur, the wind confused the sniffer dogs employed by the Nepalese police. Damien Lisicki, technical rescuer of the USAR (the UN’s Urban Search and Rescue) from Poland, offered a quick way to fix it. He blew soap bubbles to determine the direction of the wind, which helped him guide the dogs every time they lose their way. A young, colour-coordinated couple walked hand in hand under a single umbrella, taking in the dilapidated homes while four young boys walk into the relief camp at the entrance of the square, armed with sacks of freshly baked bread.

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Damien Lisick, attraced a sizable audience with his innovative way of determining the wind’s direction.

Closed shops and the damaged entrance of a house in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
Closed shops and the damaged entrance of a house in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
 

A young man takes a selfie outside a damaged house in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
A young man takes a selfie outside a damaged house in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
The next morning, we lined up outside the air base near Kathmandu Airport. The Indian Air Force was to take journos and photogs to quake affected zones on afirst come first serve basis. An officer came by and we wrote our names on a school notebook. We were led inside and we wrote our names and details yet again, on a register. After waiting for 30 minutes more, we wrote our names on yet another register. And one more time on a small diary, just before boarding our allotted helicopters.

My journey to Sindhupalchowk, the worst affected district was a pure stroke of luck. There was room for one extra person on an Indian Air Force helicopter carrying relief material and an Indian TV news channel’s anchor and cameraman. I took a seat quietly in a corner and I was asked to write my details yet again on a loose sheet of paper. Oh boy, the men in uniform seem to love paper and pen.

The true impact and scale of the devastation could be witnessed in Nepal’s villages. Like Chautara in Sindhupalchowk, 80 km away from the national capital. The chopper circled over the tiny hamlet twice before it finally landed and from the grey sky I saw the injured survivors laidout on stretchers close to the helipad, and minutes after we land, 27 of them, were on their way to Kathmandu. The total number of casualties reported in the district was close to 3000 and was expected to rise as rescue teams were yet make their way into its inaccessible pockets.A newly built hospital in Chautara had been destroyed too and the doctors had set up camp on the football ground, which was now home to more than 2,000 people. Sukhmaya Tamang of a nearby village called Baraua consoled her nine-month-old boy Ashram while they were seated inside a rainbow coloured medical tent. Her son, the only one injured in their home, had suffered severe injuries on his face and head while the rest of the family was outdoors working on their small field. A lot of people in Chautara, showered praise on the Nepalese Army, followed by a mellow, heartfelt word of thanks for Indian soldiers. Not before the Indian contingent overstayed its welcome by hijacking and taking total credit for its part in the rescue efforts. The paper and pen lovers had fully milked the situation and reduced it to a PR exercise, washing away all the goodwill to dust.

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Aerial view of a quake damaged settlement on the way to Sindhupalchowk.

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Waiting for a helicopter to Kathmandu, a woman prays after being rescued by the Nepalese army in Sindhupalchowk, Nepal.

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An earthquake survivor stares blankly as he is airlifted to Kathmandu form Sindhupalchowk, Nepal.

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Sukhmaya Tamang consoles her 9 month old son Ashram at a relief camp set up in Chautara, Sindhupalchowk. The Tamangs were out working in the fields when the quake occurred while Ashram was indoors, when a portion of the roof fell on the boy’s head.
A commanding officer requested the soldier who was chaperoning us to let go of our pick-up truck for a few minutes—an old man, with grave fractures on his left leg and right shoulder, had to be taken to the helipad right away so that he could be airlifted to a better hospital in Kathmandu. Inside the tent, the old man was lying on the floor, writhing in acute pain. Diagonally opposite him sat a young boy on a lopsided chair, getting his left eyelid stitched. Blood oozed out as a suture punctures the skin above his eye. No painkillers were offered to curb his wincing. The scene was one of those photographs I chose not to make on this assignment.

Although I have witnessed it before, at the camps, the scenes were a little too much to digest. Bewildered babies, wondering what they were being punished for and the old hoping that this is not the way they go. At some point I stopped at a house whose front and left side had fallen off, sliced like bread exposing the softer interiors, the rooms, the place of worship and lots of photos of its inhabitants. The TV anchor caught up with me, whipped out his cell phone, took a selfie and instructed the cameraman to record this “pyaari tasveer”.

Women walk past a damaged house in Chautara, Sindhupalchowk, Nepal.
Women walk past a damaged house in Chautara, Sindhupalchowk, Nepal.

The remains of a car buried under the rubble in Sindhupaclhowk, Nepal.
The remains of a car buried under the rubble in Sindhupalchowk, Nepal.
On my way back to the helipad, a woman picked up handfuls of rice that had spilled over onto the rain-soaked street when a packet she salvaged from her broken house tore open. Inside the chopper, Suresh Tamang, a 9 year old sat clung to his father Mirghe, both flummoxed and dazed at the turn of events over the last 72 hours. The boy’s jaw and face were swollen, eyes bloodshot, and his leg bent like a bow. The mental scars were a lot more severe than the physical ones. A young Indian army officer, who was in charge of navigations, was holding on to his last bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. He offered it to the boy, but he just held it in his scarred palms, and made no attempt to open it. Suresh looked at me blankly while his father looked away through the window, probably searching for traces of his home. I took a pause from being a journalist and helped him with the chocolate, broke it into tiny pieces and offered him each. He took time swallowing the chocolate, torn between the pain in his jaws and the happiness he derived from this unexpected gift. The boy from Singerchya looked longingly at a bottle of water under my seat. I opened it and held it towards him. His blank look suggested I help him drink. Silence was our mode of communication. Closer to Kathmandu, he sat glued to his father and together they looked at the city from above, on board their first ever flight.

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Inside an India Air Force rescue helicopter, on our way back from Sindhupalchowk, 9 year old Suresh Tamang looks on while his father Mirghe stares outside the window.
Back in Kathmandu, a long queue of buses caused a mammoth pile up on the Airport Gaushala road. The Indian Government had sent over 100 buses to evacuate its own, but no one was able to control the number of people. There was no sure way to distinguish who was really affected by the quake from someone merely looking for a free ride home. Deepak Sethi of Hajipur was frustrated by the eight-hour long wait. Till a few days ago, he shared a room in Kathmandu with three other boys of his school and it gave way on 25 April, leaving him and his pet dog Moti homeless.

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Deepak Sethi and his pet dog Moti, wait in a long queue of Indians waiting to be evacuated from Kathmandu to their home towns close to the Indo Nepal border.
The nights in the hotel rooms were crazy. Every room had loud discussions, about rescued folks, the hot women of Nepal, while some recounted stories of wars and famines they covered, some debated on complex ideas of nationhood, the Kashmir problem and what to order before the kitchen shuts. Outside the rooms, wasted food piled up and awaited clearance while wasted journalists staggered looking for a cigarette, a joint, alcohol, a conversation, a few hours of sleep or a strong wifi signal. Maybe this was a way for everyone to wash off the stench of rotting humans that had travelled with them all day long. I stayed back after filing my story for a few more days, knowing that going back would only throw me back into feeling crappy about my personal debacle!

 

Listlessly, I tagged along with photographers exploring sections of Kathmandu. Everyone was looking for a story to tell, everyone looking for that one defining image of a survivor. At a public hospital, a photographer positioned a soft toy closer to an injured child and the next morning the photograph was on the front page of a national newspaper in India. At Gongabu, on the street, in a body bag, was a man’s pregnant wife. Like is practiced often in India – she had chosen to deliver her babies, twins, in her hometown close to Kathmandu. Before heading there she stayed in a guest house, closer to the hospital for she had a final appointment with her doctor. Her body was found, beyond recognition, after 4 days. The man wanted to take the three humans home for cremation, across the border to India and sat patiently for the army to help him with transport. He borrowed a thousand Indian rupees from me for the journey, took my number and promised that he shall return the money soon. Merely fifteen feet away from him, a Nepalese Army man sat on the edge of a broken cupboard and stared motionless at his blood stained, glove draped hands.

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A large number of deaths were recorded near new bus stop area, home to crammed and illegal guest houses, situated on the periphery of Kathmandu, Nepal.

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The relative of an earthquake victim cries after identifying her sister’s body outside a guest house in Gongabu, Nepal.

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Rescue workers unable to bear the stench of a body recovered from Gongabu, on the periphery of Kathmandu, Nepal.

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A Nepalese rescue worker looks at his hands after pulling out a six day old, severely decomposed body from the rubble at Gongabu, Nepal.
In Sankhu, volunteers pulled a rope tied to a section of a damaged house to bring it down fully. A human chain was formed. They pulled hard, the rope broke but the home stood still. At one point a photographer’s head banged into my lens. Slick salt and pepper hair, crisp white shirt, blue jeans and a camera with a single wide angle lens. Relax, not James Nachtwey, some other Spanish rude dude. He walked backwards and banged into my camera yet again and howled at me for being too close. I reasoned that I was seeing elsewhere, and it’s his job to be careful, not mine, especially when there are just the two of us here and I wasn’t the one shoving my greasy gelled head into his lens. So bizarre to argue over space in the middle of all this, I made a few frames and left the scene to stumble into two photographers taking a selfie while survivors looked for their belongings in the rubble. At Tudikhel ground, while I was standing on top of a truck distributing relief material to the thousands gathered, a French photographer asked me to lend a helping hand and pull him up. I had left my wide angle lens at the hotel and he offered his and insisted I shoot with it for as long as I needed.

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Nepalese army men watch as a portion of a damaged home collapses in Sankhu.

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An old man sits outside his house as his house, now enveloped by cracks on every side, in Sankhu, Nepal.

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Ducks walk by as an old man waits for a relative at a relief camp in Sankhu, Nepal.

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Survivors reaching out for food rations at Tudikhel ground, Kathmandu.
On my last night, a few journos and I went to the party district – Thammel. A dance bar named Nasha, had re-opened and its mascot, the Hindu god Ganesh seemed a little misplaced but what the heck. Seated around a figure eightish dance floor were a motley group of journalists/photographers/tv crews and those tourists unaffected by the quake. B-boys followed after every performance by a female dancer dressed in an asphyxiating black dress. The gender balance on the dance floor was interesting and I was fascinated by the irony of it all but a little bummed since they didn’t allow me to bring my camera in.

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While we were circling in the sky on the evening of 27th April,Mashreeb asked to see the book I was reading. I offered him the book, David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun”. He turned to the page I was on, quickly read the top paragraph and sighed before handing it back to me. Its last line was, ‘Hope is oxygen to someone suffocating on despair.’

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A week after the earthquake, inside the abandoned public hospital in Sindhupalchowk, new leaves blossom.
 

 

 

 

Being Ambedkar

In April 2015, I was asked by a dear friend to follow Sambhaji Bhagat, a folk protest singer as he embarked on a four city tour across Maharashtra to promote the movie Court. Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, the multi award winning film features two songs that were sung and composed by Bhagat.

Our tour began at a similar time of the year, in April, when the drought was its peak. The drought and the heatwave have now become annual fixtures in the Maharashtrian calendar. Bhagat’s first gig was in Nagpur, followed by Pune, Nashik and finally the swanky, air conditioner cooled Damodar Hall in Parel, Mumbai.

While Bhagat was on stage at the Bal Gandharva auditorium in Pune, I walked in to the green room to charge my phone batteries and noticed a man sitting in blue underwear and a shirt. Slick black hair, gelled all the way back, facing a table fan. He smiled creepily at me, like he was housing a big laddoo in his mouth.

We got talking and he told me he was waiting for his hair to dry. In a few minutes as the show was about to get over, he got ready and I was aghast. Gulabrao Ovhal had majestically transformed into Babasaheb Ambedkar. I quickly made some photos on his request, before he left the green room and went on to the stage to get photographed and introduced with Bhagat. Not before he handed over a pamphlet which informed about Pragnyasurya, a one act play devised and performed by him, in which he narrates the story of Ambedkar.

A week later, back home, I tried calling the numbers on the yellow and now mildly ripped piece of paper. The numbers were no longer in service and the email mentioned was wrong too. I tried for months, till January 2016, when I made the trip to a village on the outskirts of Pune, looking for the Ambedkar I met last year.

After two days of asking about, I found him – living in a ground plus one row house whose exterior walls were painted “Ambedkar Blue”. He told me that he only performs the play around Babasaheb’s birth and death anniversaries – both of which I had missed. The only option was to wait till April 2016, which also happened to Babasaheb’s 125th centenary.

Here’s a short video followed by an introductory piece and photos of Ovhal and his first performance of the season.


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An inch or two taller than the average Indian, Gulab Ovhal is easy to miss in a crowd – A conventional pot belly, thinning hair and spectacles that are universal trademarks of a grandfather. Only when he steps on to the stage, with his hair gelled back, in a suit whose shirt collar overlaps the jacket’s, does one marvel at the startling resemblance with Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Over the past 9 years Gulabrao has enthralled audiences with his hour-long one act play titled Pragnyasurya, in which he narrates a compressed version of Ambedkar’s life, his struggle, his education, and the penning of the Indian Constitution. Every year, days before and leading up to Ambedkar’s birth and death anniversaries, Ovhal is flooded with invites from the smallest of “sarvajanik mandals” across Maharashtra, big time politicians eager to win over their “janta” or sometimes, schools and colleges too. He refuses no one and there are days, like his current schedule for Ambedkar’s 125th centenary, where he has over 9 performances scheduled in and around Pune. If the performance is in his hometown of Bhosri, he doesn’t charge a penny, merely asks for a pick and drop to the venue and a meal.

The story goes like this. In 1995, on a Sunday morning, Gulabrao’s razor slipped and he nicked off a portion of his moustache. The youngest of his two sons mocked him at first but insisted he shave off the entire moustache to save him the embarrassment at Century Enka, the factory where he worked. He also remarked that if only he had a blazer and round-framed glasses, Gulabrao would probably pass off for a photocopy of Ambedkar.

Off went the duo to a photo studio in the market, after borrowing glass-less round-framed spectacles from an optometrist. Dressed in a blue blazer that might have been worn by many men of his town, the studio photographer was probably the first man to document the transformation of a commoner into Bhimrao. Minus the blazer and the glasses, while on their way home, Gulabrao was stopped in his tracks by his neighbour’s mom, an 80 year old woman who remarked, “Surprisingly, today I can see Bhim in you”.

When he was merely five years old, Ovhal remembers how he had to wait for hours before his turn to fill water from the pump close by. He remembers how while watching a game of cricket, seated on the steps of the Hanuman Mandir, a boy of a higher caste kicked him from behind to send him rolling down. Much later, like many other Dalits he too had taken up Buddhism without paying much attention to what Bhimrao had preached. At no point till the shaving accident, did he take to the readings of Ambedkar.

Ovhal began reading books on Ambedkar soon after. One of the things that struck him most was Ambedkar’s plea to his followers that his Diksha shouldn’t go waste; that they must rise and continue to spread his message. The following year, he participated in Ambedkar’s birthday celebrations in Pune. Many mandals representing their villages had spent a lot of money on decorative floats, song and dance performances etc. Gulabrao went to a barber shop near the festivities, changed into his cheaply tailored suit, round spectacles, armed with a copy of the Constitution in Marathi, he led his contingent to grand applause from the spectators.

Over the years that followed, Ovhal was invited to several events and political rallies for photo ops. A curious stranger mocked him by asking if he did anything else besides insulting Ambedkar by standing in crowded places and pointing skywards.

The hurt caused by the remark finally began to heal when he performed a small skit at the village square in Bhosri in 2007, in which he narrated Bhimrao’s story from birth to death. A sketchy performance at best, he concedes but it began the transformation of Gulab Ovhal, from mill worker to Ambedkar’s lookalike to Bhimrao’s messenger. When his factory offered the option of early retirement to its employees, Gulabrao leapt at it. His eldest son had invested in a small tempo and used it as a school bus, while his youngest was on his way to set up his own computer hardware store. Ovhal had no worries left and the time was ripe for him to devote all of it in perfecting his one act play.

Even now political parties invite him or inaugurations of public landmarks, to just stand around while people request him to keep pointing skywards till they make the perfect selfie. Ovhal doesn’t like it much, but it helps generating awareness and he gets more invites to perform his play. One of his most memorable performances portraying Ambedkar, was a gig he did for just two families in a small hamlet near Koyna dam. After a wretched journey on a State Transport bus, followed by a three-on-a bike ride and a long walk under the April sun, he took to the stage erected for him using dung cakes, no loudspeakers, followed by a simple home cooked meal under a carpet of stars.

Back home, his grandchildren yell “Baba” (grandfather) when they come across a photo or footage of Ambedkar on Lord Buddha TV, the most watched channel at the Ovhals. Gulabrao also runs a modest travel agency that specializes in Buddhist tours wherein he takes people to some of the holiest places affiliated to Buddhism.

On Monday morning, after yet another riveting performance at an event in a slum in Bhosri, his dyed hair are no longer slung back. He is dialing the phone of the organizer of an event and begins his call as, “Mee Ambedkar Boltoy (I Am Ambedkar Speaking)”. The man on the other side recognized him at once and they exchange notes on time and place of the scheduled performance. An address is being noted down by Shravni, his granddaughter, while Ovhal remarks to the organizer, “This year it is the 125th, hence all the noise. What about the next and the years after?” They laugh as Ovhal hangs up. Gulabrao’s wife enters the room with a cup of tea and takes a good look at the mess around. “Please finish your calls fast, I need you to bring me a few things from the market”.

 

On Sunday, a few hours before his performance, Gulabrao waited anxiously for the power to return so he could get ready.
The basin of his modest house, sheltered from the elements by a leftover political poster.

 

Ovhal’s grandson pauses while solving Rubik’s cube to help him get ready.

 

Ovhal browses through a page of his copy of the Indian constitution to recall a quote he uses during his performance.

 

Ovhal kills time till his pick up arrives by whatsapping details of his scheduled performances over the next few days.

 

Ovhal’s granddaughter, Shravni, looks on as her Baba watches a song on a channel called Lord Buddha TV

 

One last look in the mirror before he heads out.

 

Heading towards the venue in his modest ride – a rickshaw.

 

Waiting with the rickshaw driver, for the politician to finish his speech.

 

 

Walking to the venue, surrounded by his young fans and chants of Jai Bhim

 

and a background score of remixed versions of folk songs sung in honour of Ambedkar

 

Before the start of his monologue, flashing the signature Ambedkar pose, one hand clutching the constitution while the other pointing skywards.

 

A young girl relaxes her neck on her outstretched arm while recording Ovhal’s performance.

 

In the backdrop, a mural depicting Ambedkar’s water Satyagrah, where he and his followers marched to Chavdar Talav and drew water.

 

A woman watches Ovhal’s performance intently. Many people in villages around Pune have seen his performance multiple times

 

Ovhal looks away from the crowd to regain his composure after getting a little carried away while narrating the demise of Babasaheb’s wife Ramabai.

 

After the show, fans crowd around for a photograph with their Ambedkar

 

While some kids seek his blessings

 

Women waiting to be photographed next to Ovhal wait for him to finish his glass of warm milk

 

Ovhal hurries home with his modest payment from the organizers – a trophy, a bouquet and

 

a modest meal at Hotel Malvan before it shuts down for the day, fully paid for by the organizer of the show.

Note – A shorter version of this story appears tomorrow in the opening section of the latest issue of The Open Magazine.

On North Eastern Roads

 

 

On the road to Cherrpunjee, a young man embraces the fog.
On the road to Cherrapunjee, embracing the fog.
My first Indian road trip was technically an assignment. I had pitched a story to my boss at Hindustan Times about a travelling music festival in the North East of India, the Roots Festival Tour. I had learnt of it after I had come back from my second very short trip to Shillong. Miraculously, it was approved, and our photo department was more than happy to watch the resident miscreant go away for a whole month.

I was nervous as hell since my only exposure to “hitting the road” was American movies such as Easy Rider or books by Ted Conover, and of course, Kerouac. The north east for most “mainlanders” remains a mysterious place. This was going to be my first backpacking trip. A light enough bag consisting a bare boned camera kit and a book which I can’t recall since I didn’t read a page. My friends wondered if it was safe indeed while my sister casually asked where and when do I have to go for the visa interviews. Frankly, when on the road, if one is stupid enough, any place can be unsafe!

We began from Imphal, a town where one learns, Bollywood is banned and the weed is exceptional. Where gun toting soldiers patrol the streets and when tired, they play a game of cards under the shade of a tree.  A place where the local rice wine is so potent it is called “fire water”. On a quest to find the origin of the local movie posters, I even managed to track down a Manipuri film crew that was out shooting on the outskirts and guess what – the scriptwriter, who was chewing a twig seated on a stationary bike introduced me to Manipur’s Shah Rukh Khan who was pushing a buffalo that got too close to him. They were working on a movie where the hero, a village simpleton, is dating two women at the same time. Govinda would be pleased as punch at the imitation.

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The members of the tour bus included myself, a jolly chap called Ruby who was the go to person for all the bands, and of course, the bands – A brit pop-punk ska-brass outfit of five called Too Late Lucy, local folk stars Guru Rewben Mashangwa and Warklung Baba also oddly known as Phu Ning Ding(!) and my personal favourites – an Israeli reggae band called DUB LFO. Since Hindi music is “not allowed” in Manipur, Raghu Dixit was to join the gang later in a few days in Dimpaur, Nagaland.

On the night journey from Imphal to Dimapur, after witnessing a Maruti Omni fall off into a gorge from the side of a skinny road, we stayed a night in Kohima, which is probably the most charming town I have seen in our entire country. The central market is a sensory assault, and this is the first time I saw frogs and rats and, hold your breath – dogs being sold. Not as pets, but to be consumed as food. Naga cuisine is home to intense and high on spices.

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From majestic Kohima to Dimapur, which oddly reminded me of Old Agra Road in Bombay. Messy, chaotic and not as cool as the hill town we had just left. Raghu joined us here and the minuscule crowd loved him much. Dimapur also got me closer to Sonny Singh, an architect filmmaker from Goa. Well, Satinder Singh actually, who along with Sudeep Chakravarti graduated to be my mentors over time.  Road journeys, as I have now learnt, often end up as the starting point of some of our strongest friendships. Some last a lifetime, some end where the trip ends.

We landed in Diphu, Karbi Anglong district around later afternoon. There was a bit of chaos regarding rooms since the locals were celebrating Bihu, and a bomb blast had ripped through the town two days ago. The national U-17 girls football tournament was on too, which was more eagerly watched by the locals than an Indo Pak cricket encounter. Just as the national anthem was playing on the PA system, in a match where Manipur would emerge victorious over Tamil Nadu in a revenge match for a defeat last year, the clouds opened up.  It was quite heartening to see everyone stand in attention, with raindrops dripping off their cheeks. The Manipuri coach fell to her knees and cried at the final whistle while the girls celebrated with a traditional Manipuri dance, which I had witnessed earlier on stage in Imphal.

Travelling by road, doesn’t just enrich one’s mind, it also enriches the belly. After a heavy dinner, I ended up eating yet again with the gorgeous Ahomiya girls at a local Bihu dance competition. Everything in Assam, I learnt happens Laahey Laahey (lazily, slowly), and the performances too had long breaks in between and they ended only at dawn. The concert next day, began equally late due to rain, and ended at the same time, an hour before dawn!

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From Diphu, we went to Itanagar, and on the road, somewhere around Tezpur when our bus broke down, Guru Rewben went and took a long nap on a wooden log outside an abandoned shop. Ruby got a call that the organizer’s car had met with an accident, and both he and his girlfriend were severely injured. Raghu too had a fractured arm, since he was in the front seat of the innova. Everyone’s morale hit a low. I wondered if this would be the end of the story – An accident and a hospital which had rusted instruments. The gig went on as planned and emotions were running high. Guru Rewben and his 7 year old Saka, had the audience on their feet with their Naga Folk Blues while Raghu played on despite his fractured arm. A Kannadiga soldier from the CRPF posted near the ground helped Raghu off the stage and was over joyed at hearing a song in his native tongue. Backstage, he also helped him unwrap his lungi, which was a bit of an odd scene.

Roi Avital, stretches during a halt on the road to Itanagar.
Roi Avital, lead singer DUB LFO stretches during a halt on the road to Itanagar.
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Guru Rewben Mashangwa, sleeps outside a closed shop on the highway to Itanagar, while a mechanic fixes the Roots Festival tour bus.
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At the Indira Gandhi Memorial Park in Itanagar, men laze atop a damaged Second World War plane.
A rather expressive bunch of fans at the Roots Festival Tour gig in Itanagar.
A rather expressive bunch of fans at the Roots Festival Tour gig in Itanagar.
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A young fan whistles at Indian Army men keeping a watch at the Roots Festival Tour gig in Itanagar
By now we were gradually getting sick of each other and I took off to Tawang with Sonny while the rest went off to Ziiro. On the drive to Tawang, and the climb to Sela Pass, was my first sighting of snowfall. An unforgettable moment where I just stood and watched tiny flakes float past also made me realize that it’s true, there is indeed no place like Arunachal. I went to Switzerland the year after and congratulations on the cleanliness and all that but the manicured landscapes are nowhere close to the raw untamed and wild beauty of AP.

Am not usually crazy about monasteries but Sonny spent a long time making macro shots of all the artwork in and around. I chose to walk around and we learnt of a film screening happening later in the town’s theatre. A Bhutanese film about loving your nation, joining the army and all that jingoistic humbug. The entire town was there, on wooden benches, they understood every word, while Sonny and I just hung around and smoked and finally left to eat at a local joint his Lonely Planet guide book recommended.

From Hakka noodles in Bombay to Thukpa in Arunachal is quite a journey for a city dweller’s taste buds. Don’t even get me started on the alcohol. Warm rice wine, egg white and a lil dash of Yak Milk Butter – beats an over-priced whiskey sour at that cramped Bandra joint by miles. On our way back, as a memento I bought myself the Monpa hat, a wig like hat that only shows up in my cupboard during Diwali cleaning. Sonny and I now joined the group back in Guwahati, after a boring stopover in Naneri national park.

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We spent just a day in Aizawl, where one of the band members of Too Late Lucy got lucky with a local and on our way to Shillong, he sat slumped with a dreamy and lost lover’s face that the rest of the gang soon began to hate. The girl manning the phone booth outside our hotel in Aizawl, giggled too much every time I went to make a call. She met me backstage later and giggled uncontrollably. I wondered if it would be cool to cheat on my girlfriend at that time, but, better sense prevailed and I didn’t respond favourably to Ms.Giggles.

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A worker carries scrap wrapped in gunny bags, on an uphill road flanked by a church in Aizawl, Mizoram.
My next trip to this part of the world came exactly two years later when a friend’s friend messaged me on Facebook. He asked if I was keen on going to The Lake of No Return, from Pangsau Pass in Arunachal. I didn’t even bother looking it up, I just said yes and met Byron on a foggy cold morning in Guwahati. Just the idea of returning from the Lake of No Return fascinated me – like Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire, I too was “had” at Hello!

Byron Aihara, a Japanese American and a certified Indophile has been coming to India for a decade now and often prefers to stay off the touristy circuit. Before meeting me in Guwahati, in a shady hotel called Luit Lodge, Byron was worried sick about permits. This trip was going to be a bike trip but Aihara’s Enfield broke down on the way to New Delhi Station, an hour before he was to board the train. I left my Bajaj Avenger back home too and the local papers came to our rescue. I got in touch with the organizer of a vintage car rally passing through Guwahati from Shillong that was on its way to the Lake Of No Return and they were more than happy to have us around.

When we thought vintage, we didn’t know we were going to do the trip in World War II jeeps and VW Beetles. Passing through cute named towns like Digboi, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and my favourite – Margharita, the convoy made the locals stop and gaze in awe. We camped the night on the sandy banks of a river whose name I forget where everyone got acquainted with each other over fierce drinking sessions by the fire and smoked fish. I learnt that Ashok Lyngdoh, the leader of the pack had a fascination with World War II jeeps and he’s got quite a few of his own. He was actually a teacher and I wondered what a fascinating classroom his must be!

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Passing through Lekhapani, on the Stillwell road, infamous as a-man-a-mile road, we got into Pangsau late evening. The village square was all geared up for the three day festival, a state sponsored extravaganza with a bamboo shack each for each tribe of Arunachal, a rock show and of course, a fashion show. As with everything, the fun is at the post event parties. Byron and I danced with a drum circle inside the Bamboo hut of the Muklom tribe. Neither of us had our cameras. The best memory of the trip, stored as an imprint on our minds. A dimaag ka shot, as photographers refer to those memorable moments that are unphotographed.

I wasn’t quite kicked to see the Lake next day, that too for just a few hours. Many a plane had found their way down this bottomless water body, but today, boatmen offered rides to tourists for a few rupees. I didn’t come all this way to feel like am on a boat in the lake in Aarey Milk Colony, oddly known as Chota Kashmir. I was good to go and so was Byron, but not before we did some laundry, under a hand pump close to our camp site.

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Next morning, after having spent a good hour watching the sun rise and light up the Bamboo trees all around us we walked to the village square and waited for a ride. Rwmqwam Zongsam Longchang, a government employee gave us a lift to a bus stand close to Lekhapani. On the way he also showed us an ancient church in the village. The cold water baths had me running a temperature and my only desire was to get to a hotel and sleep. On the bus to Dibrugarh, a girl by the name of Ritu sat next to me. In a light brown Salwar Kameez, she saw me with my head plonked on the backpack placed between my legs and asked me where I was from. Our conversation was alright till she misunderstood my lack of energy for lack of enthusiasm and accused me of dismissing her as a silly village girl. I told her I was ill and the scales tilted. So much that not only did she apologize and eventually asked me if I were willing to marry her. She wanted me to get off at her stop and meet her parents. I guess all she wanted was a way out of this corner.

The two nights in a cramped hotel room were uneventful, besides a trip to the local theatre whose owner had this mammoth archive of vintage photographs of actors. The steaming momos and conversations with a local photographer who called himself W, a charming midget, got me sorted for the next leg of this trip. We poured over a map and thought, let’s go to Gelling, where the chinese army made deep inroads during the war, travelling on a Pagal Nala (roads that are unusable during rains) up the River Siang.

A 9 hour boat ride(the last one of the day) up the flat sandy banks and blue waters of Brahmaputra, we lost ourselves in a dusty town called Pasighat. At Oman Hotel, a policeman checked Byron’s permit, he had one. The policeman asked me if I had one, I showed him my press card. Comes morning and I saw the orange-tree lined streets bathed in sunlight, glowing. After a breakfast of ginger-garlic spiked Aloo Parathas with curds and fiery green chilly pickle, we went sight-seeing!

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The town square has a few ammunition shops, a wine store that sells the old time Bombay favourite, Kalyani Black Label beer and a cool joint called Shanghai for the hip youngsters. Invariably, I saw the same kids lounging about there any time of the day, or night. A drunk travel agent told us that there is no bus to Gelling, but there is one to Tuting and it has left already. I hear a helicopter and follow its sound to a helipad but the damn thing doesn’t care to land. The schedule at the unmanned office tells me there is no flight to Tuting for a week.

Back to the drunkard’s office who sold us two seats on a night taxi to the rather sweet sounding Yingkiong, halfway to Tuting. Our taxi had just the two of us and a family of four. Dechen Jabo, was on his way back to Tuting after a doctor’s appointment for his youngest son in a hospital in Dibrugarh. Our cab driver was probably 17, or lesser if he were to brush the pan masala off his teeth daily. At the check-post on the outskirts, he was joined by four other taxis with similar aged drivers and they told us they were going to the temple close by, but Byron followed them and saw them taking quick swigs at a shady bar. A convoy of five rickety Tata Sumos, manned by five wired yet reasonably tipsy teenagers. A CD was stuck in the music system in our cab and it played one song on a loop – Tum Mile by Neeraj Sridhar. In about 30 minutes, Byron had enough and shut the system, not before it got tattooed on my brain.

Dechen’s older son took kindly to me and chose to sit in my lap. I gave him a Kit Kat, we shared it amongst us and 15 minutes later at the next bend he fired the contents on Byron’s head, who always wants the front seat! Our “need for speed” drivers dropped us in the wee hours of the morning at Yingkiong. Dechen and his family slept at the Post Department’s guest house while we found a mouldy room in a hotel opposite. We woke up two hours later to catch the taxis from the other side of the river, a town called Moying. There was no chance I was going to brush my teeth or wash my face from the bucket of water which boasted of a thin sheet of ice.

Dechen had said that the walk to Moying was short, but it now seemed that this was his revenge for feeding his boy that chocolate bar. On this trip, I had two cameras and I looked a lot like one of the men from 26/11 – big backpack, boots and a Newswear commando style waist jacket for the gear. Dawn was about to break and from one of the bends on the road, emerged an eight food wide Indian flag, and about 400 kids in a neat formation. Republic Day was upon us and this was undoubtedly the most mesmerizing sightings of our flag. I took a Dimaag ka shot and moved on for I was too lost in just watching them.

A Maruti Omni came out of nowhere and its driver asked Byron if he wanted a ride, in Arunachali I assume since it wasn’t English or Hindi. Byron looks like a local and most people often consumed him for one of their own while I was the evil man from the mainland. We hopped in and he dropped us to Gandhi Bridge. My jaw dropped open at his demand for 200 rupees for that five minute ride. We negotiated and felt shitty being ripped off at 7 am.

We searched for the bridge but couldn’t see it from where we were. Walked a little ahead and saw geometrical figures emerge. First a circle then a rectangle, all held together on a vanishing line. A bamboo bridge over a raging turquoise river – Like the man it was named after, emerging from the fog.

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Man crossing Gandhi bridge, Yingkion, Arunachal Pradesh.
Gingerly we crossed Gandhi Bridge, it swayed with each step and swayed more when someone would walk towards us. There were several planks missing and we had to hold on to the ropes. A few months ago, I had been on top of the now dismantled thin plank that passed off as the watch tower of the Bandra Worli Sealink, but man, crossing this bridge was a lot more scary and exciting. Towards the last section, a man on a bike, loaded with freshly cut grass waited for us to come out so that he could go on it. I waited to see if he made it safely to the other side, but mid-way, he disappeared in the fog!

At the taxi stand, we took a shower under a waterfall. It was ice cold, but the walk on the bridge had charged us up. This time, Byron and I sat in the middle row of the cab. On our right was a man carrying shot gun shells, and underneath my seat were some chickens. We were 18 people in the van, 12 inside including the driver, and 6 on top with luggage. And the road, yet another Pagal Nala, a wonderful collage of rocks that the car jumped on.

Am convinced that if a road trip is too comfortable, it is often a boring one. There has to be a certain misery, a certain lack of surety to make it exciting. And that comes from not planning it much. Letting the road decide how it treats you and leaving room for chance encounters and great friendships. Of course, one also has to be a little street smart, like the time we landed in tuting and realized there are indeed no places to stay. People kept asking us the same on the taxi, where are you going to stay? What are you going there for? And the question of the decade – why aren’t you married yet?

A republic day match was going on between the army regiment and the locals, and a shopkeeper suggested I go meet the commandant and get permission from him to stay at the circuit house. I instructed Byron to stay quiet and told the army man that he is my deaf and mute assistant. I didn’t want anyone to speak to him and catch his American accent. The man gave us consent to stay in a room at the Inspection Bungalow and Byron continued his deaf and mute act all the way to dinner.

The next morning Byron went with one of the local boys to visit some mythical vagina of a Tibetan goddess – actually just the confluence of two rivers. I went along but was surprised to see that there were no fish in the stream. Byron stayed back longer while I made it to town, gate crashed a classroom of 15 students where the only light was a candle on their tables, learnt that the only phone line was at the army camp and cost 4 rupees a minute, petrol was 85 rupees a litre but every home had a dish antenna on its roof. A few boys, hanging by the local village bar called me in for a drink and Byron found me later. One of the kids did some insane imitations of the entire star-cast of Sholay and promised us his bike so we could go further to Gelling. We were to meet at 9 am next morning, but the boys never showed up

At 630, the watchman of the guesthouse told us to get out. An army contingent was arriving and they wanted the place. So we walked out with our bags, and made our way to a monastery that was under construction, past an empty airstrip occupied by cows. The main man at the monastery offered us a room in the student’s quarters and some Tibetan tea – salt, milk and tulsi. Later in the evening we sat and watched Republic Day celebrations in the TV room with a room full of young monks and I got mad emo listening to the national anthem played by the Indian Army’s Brass Band.

During a walk to the market, we met Dechen again. He took us to his house. No phones and no electricity. The house was made of bamboo, and was held up on stilts. His son was now feeling better and recognized but I didn’t offer him any Kit-Kats since I frankly, didn’t have any. Dechen organized two bikes next day, one was his own and another from a friend. Both weren’t registered, but this ride to Gelling was probably the most exciting one I have done so far. The road was full of hairpin bends and the river flowed alongside.

We stayed in Tuting for a week more, ate three meals of the same dal and rice a day, EVERY DAY and helped out carrying logs of wood and sand bags etc. Listened to some bizarre stories of sin absolving plants and stumbled into odd poles sticking in the forest with dead crows on them. I even shaved my head, played cricket with the monks and got a massive case of sunburn on my bald head. Till I was visited by a man from the local police station who asked too many questions.

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We took the next taxi out, with a sweet family that sang all the way and this time tattoed Himesh Reshammiya’s Jaaan-E-Mann on to my brain. The journey of roughly over 300 kms from Gelling To Dibrugarh, took us a lil more than 24 hours. It took us longer on our way in but on the way out we realized every minute of it since we got the last seats, over the right tyre or as Ashok calls them – Haemorrhoid seats. Byron, chose to offer his right hand as a cushion to the girl who slept on his side in the middle seat – she kept banging her head on the window. When we got off at 2 am, she went away with a man who was waiting for her without even thanking Byron. I slept off on the side of the road, waiting for yet another bus to take us to Dibrugarh from where we were to go to Nagaland a day later.

But first, a trip to Sibsagar, to meet a friend we made on the Pangsau trip. And also to get rogered by the largest mosquitoes known to mankind. As usual, we took the last bus out from Sibsagar, to Tizit and walked from Assam into Nagaland and waited for a ride to Mon, the home of the Konyak tribe, closer yet again to the Burmese border. Our seats had no cushions, no springs so we folded our jackets to ease the bumps. After stopping for a quick snack we set off again and for a brief second I thought the girl in the front seat walked out of the moving taxi, without a sound. Maybe she forgot something back at the hotel, maybe she’s angry?  Took a few seconds to realize, she had forgotten to latch the door properly and had fallen off at the turn. Her brother ran behind her and didn’t really give a shit about her but frowned at all the broken old monk bottles that fell along with her.

Two days in Mon and yet another policeman comes to the room. I was getting sick of it and we chose to junk the town and go to Kohima. At the bus stand we saw a man selling sautéed rats on a stick. Yes indeed it was time to leave. As the bus crossed into Assam, the bars began to show up again. Apart from Gujarat, Nagaland and Mizoram are dry states too. We had the aisle seats in the second last row and the last one was empty. At some point in the night a wobbly drunk man entered the bus and banged his elbows into many a passenger’s sleepy heads before collapsing on the last seat. Few minutes later he darted a giant stream of puke on Byron’s right shoulder. The bus conductor heard the commotion and shoved the drunkard in a corner of the last seat where he puked out of the window at will.

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In Kohima, we were treated to a royal dinner of veal and other exquisite animals at a minister’s house. Not after showing off his gun collection and taking down all our details – name, age, address, phone number etc. He was just being doubly sure of who his daughter had invited for dinner.  I spotted his youngest wearing a cool tshirt that read – HeadHunter’s Territory and the daughter of the minister told me that a friend of hers had designed it. Julian Jasokie, who met us a day later, came to the hotel we were at and sold me some Tshirts, all smelling of rice wine. Why? “Big party in my village happening, want to come?”

Hell Yeah!

Off to Khonoma, and witnessing a ritual called Sekrenyi where the boys and girls of the village, dressed in their traditional best, sit in a home and serenade the girls with folk songs. The girls keep filling their cups carved out of horns with rice wine till they overflow. A symbolic platonic bond is thus created, something sacred that will hold true all their lives even after both are married to their respective partners. I wish dating would be this cool in our cities.

I couldn’t recall when we passed out on the community bed at Victor Zinyu’s ancestral home. Not a bed but just a giant plank of wood, kept outdoors, under an open, starlit sky. As morning breakfast we sampled some fried insects, some more rice wine, and steamed rice that was wedged in hollow bamboo sticks. Our next stop was Dzukou valley, which was unfortunately the victim of a raging forest fire a few months ago.

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On reaching Shillong, we parted ways. I had to go shoot a story on caving in Jaintia hills, while Byron wanted to just rest and catch up with Rajesh Dutta, a professor we met on the trip to Pangsau. The caving gig was cool but the reporter was not sure if I would turn up, despite my confirmation, and he had organized another photographer. I was the third wheel in the tent and I was also out of money. So I left and made my way to a petrol pump on the Aizawl Shillong highway. No cabs around, no buses around but one taxi guy said he will drop me to Shillong for 500 rupees!

I went back to the petrol pump, and told the Sardarji owner that I was off. He seemed wary and asked me about my mode of transport and insisted on meeting the driver, a true Dad like moment indeed. On seeing the Sikh, the driver refused to go. Uncle told me that the driver might take you a little ahead, strip you off your belongings and might even murder and throw you off. As they say in Test Cricket – Well Left Sir.

Three friends, Lad-Rymbai, Jaintia hills, Meghalaya.
Three friends, Lad-Rymbai, Jaintia hills, Meghalaya.
Uncle finally made some calls and came to know of a bus and put me on it. I had now met two exquisite Sardarjis on this trip, one close to Digboi, a mechanic who had a beautiful panoramic sepia tinted photograph of the Golden Temple in his workshop shot decades back by his grandfather and the second who saved me from driving into certain death. The bus dropped me at Malki Point and I had to look for a guest house called Holiday Inn. Seven roads emerged from where I stood. I removed the machete I had bought in Burma and walked up each slope.

Not a human in sight.

In the second last lane, was parked a Maruti 800, and someone flicked a cigarette off it. I walked close and one of the men inside shrieked like he had seen a ghost. He began to roll the window up while his friend was cursing at me. I realized it’s the damn piece of metal in my hands and put it away and begged them to help me find this hotel. Here too, I showed them my press card, voter’s card, driving license and the empty wallet. They asked me to sit inside, gave me their beer and some chips and off we went hunting for Holiday Inn.

They dropped me outside it and left after exchanging numbers and did meet us for dinner few days later. At the hotel, Byron had constructed an elaborate map of yellow post-its which lead me to his window in the backside rooms and I woke him up. He woke up the manager who let me in. This was the beginning of the closing stage of our trip.

Byron and I exchanged notes on the trip and he was convinced that I truly love being miserable. The next few days were spent in lounging about, catching up with old friends, updating facebook status and realizing that not many folks in our country do unplanned road trips in India. They do a lot of “soul searching” Euro trips, and journeys to Istanbul etc but no one goes looking for themselves in India, which I hope changes. Bollywood, a parallel education system in our country, too, doesn’t help much in inducing its fans to take trips across the country. Even if one is not down and out with issues of some sort, India is best seen and enjoyed on a road trip. There is absolutely no better equalizer than a trip through lesser known villages and towns, off the tourist circuit!

Our last lunch was at Hotel HongKong, a veteran establishment in Police Bazar. We stepped out on the street and just stood about near a fruit stall when a slushy mess that looked like puke came flying into byron’s face. The stall’s young assistant had a fight with his master and flung a mudapple (chikoo) on his forehead which exploded in all directions. Byron was a bit bummed at first at being barfed on a third time in a month, but was amused when he realized what had happened and licked off the fruit with his finger.

After all, it’s customary to have something sweet after a meal in our country!

 

P.S. Here’s what Aihara looks like, most of the time. He’s about to publish a fantastic book on Dance, Music and Rituals of Manipur in some time. Follow the link to know more about his work – http://www.lensculture.com/byron-aihara

Go here for his version of the trip – http://convozine.com/4053-ritesh-uttamchandani/9615

OR send him a facebook message!
 

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To see more of my work – http://www.riteshuttamchandani.com or follow me on Instagram @riteshuttamchandani.

 

 

The 53rd hostage

Reza India January 2015 31

Perched on a leafless tree, a bird catches the attention of the young boy. He runs inside to fetch his father’s Kodak Box Camera. He walks slowly towards the tree, like a cat on the prowl. Aiming the camera skyward, he composes his frame, the bird is about to be cherished forever on film, when he makes a noise that startles the bird and all that he records is bare branches.

A few days later, on his way to school he notices an urchin, probably of the same age as him, begging on the street. He’s not wearing any shoes. Disturbed and clueless the boy goes home to illustrate his chaos in the form of a drawing. He shows it to his siblings, his parents and everyone mocks his lack of skill. “This, hahaha- this doesn’t look like a human?,” they say. One day he meets another boy, barefoot and draped in rags, standing outside his school. He’s never been inside a school and is curious. Our protagonist crosses over his self imposed boundary and brings the boy inside the school compound. Repulsed by the odour, his classmates beat and drive them both out of the school compound.

Reza Deghati was in his early teens when he realized that the camera can be a tool for him to record and show people the things he sees. The son of a government employee, the viewfinder would soon become his personal window to his birthplace, Tabriz, Iran and later, the world. He relished the fact that what he sees through that tiny square will be recorded as is, with lesser effort than drawing! Like all rookies Reza initially drew blanks and washed out a few rolls of film. Walking around in the market one day, he noticed a photo studio with enlargements of portraits hung in its window display. He walked inside and asked the owner, rather innocently, “Sir, how do you make this tiny film so big? All the people in my roll are tiny and colourless while yours are so colourful? Please teach me how you do this?”

One of the sharper students of his school, Reza quickly grasped the process of developing film and making prints from the studio owner. He photographed more actively than before and decided to publish a community newspaper named  Parvaaz – the bird. The paper contained couplets by local poets, a few pictures by Reza and a single story about a woman in Bander Abbas.

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Reza pauses to take sip from his cup of green tea. The restaurant at Krishna Palace is empty and his friend and publisher Marc Parent left soon after breakfast to run a few errands. Reza returns to the conversation and informs me, “Bander Abbas is a port on the Persian Gulf and spelt as, B – A – N, ” I interrupt to tell him, that I do know a little about Bander Abbas, thanks to a dispatch I read by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. Under the veil of development, purchased with Oil money, Mahmoud Reza Pehlavi, the last Shah of Iran had ordered shiploads of material from different countries. Perishables like exotic foods and chemicals, trucks and trailers, which once offloaded on to the tiny port had to be transported to Tehran but the state had no infrastructure in place and a major chunk of the cargo was left rotting, covered in sand, on the Bander Abbas – Tehran highway.

Near the jetty, during the Friday market, Reza came across an old woman, seated on the floor, selling stale fish. He wondered why someone would sell that and took a picture of her. The woman asked him,”Why are you taking my picture?” It was the first of many times someone would ask Reza this question and he answered, “because am curious about your life and why is it that you are selling such fish?” She called him close to her and told him about her son, a fisherman and the only earning member of their family. His accidental death had brought the family on to the streets. Taking pity on her, the son’s friends would give her their leftover fish to sell. The money earned was not enough to feed her husband, his son’s wife and their two kids, but somehow they managed – Only after giving half of the earnings to the policeman on duty as bribe.

Reza was shocked to hear this. This was a time when the national press was singing praises of the police and were hailed as the protectors of the country. He waited at a distance to see with his own eyes if what the old woman said was indeed true. A few days later, policemen accosted him on his way back from school. They took him to a room where 35 copies of the paper were stacked up on a table. His interrogators rolled up copies of the “bird” and used it as a baton. Once back home he tried to hide the reason of his reddened, tear soaked face from his mother. He told her he had a fight in school. Reza’s mother summoned his father to question the young man.

Reza’s father heard the true version of events and paused to let the details sink in. He then did something that left an unforgettable mark on Reza. He looked all around the house and outside the window, and asked his son,”Do you think what you have done is right?” Yes, said Reza. His father repeated the scan again and insisted, “So do it, but don’t be foolish, do it smartly.” This was a time in Iran when someone was always listening in to your private conversations.

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Tehran University didn’t offer a dedicated photography course and there were no books and magazines to fall back on . In the hope that someday he will learn more about optics and the properties of light, Reza opted for physics. He waited but besides basic topics like convex/concave lenses, refraction and rarefaction of light there was no sign of “optics”. At the suggestion of a friend he leapt over to Architecture, which he soon realized was perfect for him. “Architecture was good for me, since it teaches you to look at the psychology of people, the weather, the local materials, customs, rituals, while planning a structure. It also requires you to go out and take photos of sites and make detailed drawings with the help of rulers and grids.”

Reza lead a dual life – He took pictures of the poverty and social injustice around him during the day and pasted those pictures up on Tehran’s walls in the night. He moved around like a shadow, under a cloak of darkness. His photos were in sharp contrast to the pictures in the local press. Bought over by their ruler, newspapers in Tehran were paying glowing tributes to the Shah everyday, and would often display pictures of mega infrastructure projects, lavish parties and if nothing else, pictures of the Shah doing mundane things. Almost forty years ago, this was probably the first time that photography was used as a militant exercise to subvert the monarch’s propaganda.

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Like every other dictator in history, the Shah too had put in place a domestic security and intelligence agency. Modelled on and trained clandestinely by the CIA, SAVAK operated from 1957 to 1979, till the fall of the Shah. They were everywhere, they controlled universities, the press, businesses, offices, factories. They banned books and films that had the tiniest hint of rebellion against monarchy. They were known as the most hated and feared institution purely for inhuman levels of torture meted out to opponents of Pahlavi’s regime. They vitiated the daily lives of people further by indulging in a game of rumours. Their technique was very simple. Imagine a scene where four men are at a bus stop, one of them is a Savak agent. The agent whispers in the first man’s ear, he thinks the third man an agent. Alarmed, the first man slides up to the fourth and repeats the same. In his head, the fourth assumes the first one to be an agent and instead tells him that the agent might be the second one. The fourth man walks up to the second to verify his claim and the true agent derails his thought further by calling the first man an agent. The game continues till no one trusts anyone. They were everywhere, yet, they remained invisible.

16 such invisibles knocked on the door of the Deghati household one night. They arrested  and questioned the 22 year old student at an undisclosed location for five months. Often they would make him stand for three consecutive days, and then keep him awake for three more in rooms that were not more than 4 feet in either dimension. Based on a wild assumption and under torture, a student activist had ratted out Reza’s name as a possible collaborator in a protest. It was the rumour game that got him arrested. Soon enough, the agents learnt that it is indeed Reza who goes around town pasting pictures on the wall. The torture intensified.  They wanted to know who his handlers were. They wanted to know how much they pay him. They wanted to know everything when the truth was indeed that in his act of subversion, he was all by himself. They couldn’t believe he was operating all by himself. Decades later, in 2013, Reza was jokingly frisked by George Clooney during their meeting. The actor too couldn’t believe that Reza is an individual who does all that he does by himself, single handedly.

After 5 months of torture Reza served two and half years of prison time. He shared prison space with Iran’s top intellectuals, poets and reformists, such as novelist Mahmoud Dolatabadi, poet Sayed Sultanpour and writer Feredun Shayon, all in jail for speaking up against the Shah. He made friends with 17 year old Mohsin Makhmalbaf who would go on to become one of Iran’s finest filmmakers. Makhmalbaf was serving time for attacking a policeman. Once out of prison, these men would go on to spearhead a revolution that would bring an end to Pahlavi’s suffocating regime.

Reza claims that the 3 years of prison shaped his personality. It took this negative action to bring out the positive in him. When his interrogators yelled at him,”I will break you,” his inner voice would yell back, “Fuck you, I will break YOU.” While Reza was battling his oppressors, his family was waging a battle of their own. For a year and a half they had no clue if he was alive or dead. When his parents did see their emaciated son for the first time in two years, they insisted he write an apology letter to the government which would ensure his quick release. Reza shot back at his father, “Apology for what?” A week later, his father told him, “Do what you feel is right so that you might not regret later and hold me responsible for it.”

Reza excuses himself to go to the loo, not before throwing a question my way. He asks if I’ve ever been to prison. I tell him I haven’t. He laughs and says, “Never too late to commit a crime.”

Reza India January 2015 18

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After finishing his prison sentence, Reza resumed his studies and enrolled in an architectural firm in Tehran as part of his internship. His country was slowly waking up to the atrocities of the regime. Protests were becoming rampant and one such protest in Qom took a bloody turn when police opened fire on the protestors. Forty days later, a crowd gathered in the streets of Tabriz to commemorate those perished in the Qom rebellion. The service soon turned into an insurrection with the crowd chanting, “Death to the Shah”. In a repeat of the Qom incident, the streets were soaked in blood. At every forty day interval, the protests grew stronger and streets bloodier till the protests seeped into the capital city. One such protest marched underneath the window of Reza’s office. This was a time when even looking at a protest march could get you arrested, or worse, shot. Reza’s gaze was fixed on a young protestor who was taking pictures of the rally. After the marchers passed by, Reza, requested his employer to grant him three days leave from work. His boss assumed that the boy must have been a bit shocked looking at the protestors, memories of his prison term were probably haunting him and granted him the leave of absence.

Reza called on a friend and borrowed his friend’s camera for a few days. His family was aghast, he was back to his old ways. For the next three days, he photographed all the protests in and around Tehran. On the fourth day, he requested his boss for an extension of 3 more days.

He winks before he says, “It’s more than 35 years now and I have still not returned to that office.”

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Like Ravel’s Bolero, the protests were amplifying into a crescendo and the world was listening in. Foreign correspondents and photographers smuggled themselves in through the country’s porous borders eager to get a glimpse of the impending grand finale. Reza in the meanwhile began contributing pictures to AFP. He vaguely recalls that his first contribution to the agency was a photograph of a protest. The agency didn’t have a photographer in place and Reza gave the photograph for free. He used to offer his photos for free to everyone during those years. “Only later when I met the foreign photographers, did I realize that one can make money out of it too, ” he confesses.

The details are a bit muddy, but he recalls a trip to Paris where a woman named Martine or Claire and a few friends insisted that he show some some of his recent pictures to the editors of Gamma, Sygma and Sipa Press. Reluctantly he agreed.

His meeting at Sygma was a disaster. He was made to meet the lowest ranked employee who acted like he was the boss and sat with his feet on the table. He looked at Reza’s transparencies and told him that he needed to work harder. Reza wasn’t keen to work anyways at a place where a man has no clue that it’s an insult to show their feet to a visitor. Reza’s friends prodded him further and he went to meet the folks at Sipa where they treated him much better. Impressed by his work, an editor at the agency insisted he meet their owner, the Turkish photojournalist Goksin Sipahioglu.

A few days before the meeting at SIPA, Reza had photographed a protest march by Iron workers in Paris. It was the biggest congregation of workers in over a decade. During the protest, most photographers were unable to take pictures due to the tear gas shells. Reza however knew how to handle tear gas. He got hold of a news paper, set it afire and inhaled the flames. One way to counter tear gas fumes is to dilute it by inhaling the flames of different kinds of paper and ink. Goksin looked at Reza’s photographs and summoned his entire team of photographers. Five of SIPA’s photographers were covering the same protest. Goksin showed them Reza’s photos and asked, “How come none of you have such photographs?” One of the photographers remembered seeing Reza, he had mistaken him to be a protestor when he was setting fire to a newspaper.

——-

Reza returned to Iran as a contributor for both AFP and Sipa Press signing off with his first name to avoid being detected. He was often the first one to have information on the uprisings since he had access directly to their leaders, with whom he had shared jail time. Gradually he made friends with Don McCullin, Marc Riboud and some of the greatest names of photography. He often worked as their fixer but never saw their photographs since they would photograph and process their films back home. “I would see them all hopping around, burning roll after another, while I would spend months to finish a single one.” Thrift is one more thing Reza learnt from the prison yard. One day, they asked him to show his photographs since he too was always roaming around with a camera. They looked at his prints the next day and reprimanded him for cheating. They assumed the pictures weren’t his. He went home and brought his contact sheets. They were doubly sure that he is merely reprinting a rather talented Iranian photographer’s negatives or worse, merely copying the contact sheets and enlargements.

——-

A ten day assignment where he was commissioned to make aerial photographs of the oil-fields took Reza to the south of Iran. On the second day, during lunch with the pilots, he heard a speech by Ayatollah Khomeini on the TV in the restaurant. Hurriedly he left his lunch midway and called his friends in Tehran, to ask if something was happening. They said everything is quiet. Reza told them he had a hunch something was about to happen. He told the same to the pilots. No one believed him. Reza booked himself the first flight out and deserted the assignment.

Photograph courtesy : Reza
Photograph courtesy : Nieman Reports

During the speech, Khomeini referred to The American Embassy as a nest of spies, which to Reza seemed like a coded way of instigating his followers to attack the embassy. In prison, Reza learnt that on the surface what one prisoner said to another, may mean something else altogether.

His hunch was strengthened further when he reached Tehran. The ministry had issued an invite to the entire media for a press conference at the University. Reza smelled a rat. Only to satisfy his thoughts, he went first to the embassy and if all was normal he would later go to the university. Outside the embassy, he noticed a few masked students scaling the walls. He packed his gear into his bag, leaped over a wall and started taking pictures. A student walked up to him and asked him for his identity. Before Reza could say anything the young man opened his shirt and on his chest was pasted a portrait of Khomeini that read, “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line”. The boy took hold of Reza’s camera, confiscated his film and ordered him to get out. The Iranian hostage crisis had begun and Reza camped outside the gate and photographed it all while the rest of his fraternity was disguisedly held hostage inside the university grounds.

Chaotic scenes on the streets of Tehran during the hostage crisis. Photograph courtesy : Reza
Chaotic scenes on the streets of Tehran during the hostage crisis. Photograph courtesy : Nieman Reports
A toppled statue of Mahmoud Reza Pehlavi. Photograph courtesy : Reza
A toppled statue of Mahmoud Reza Pehlavi. Photograph courtesy : Nieman Reports

Food stalls had popped up which kept the protestors and him well fed and in the nights he slept on a sleeping bag that he carried with him in his car. In Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, the author describes a scene where women marched down the streets brandishing guns that housed red coronations atop their barrels. Reza’s photograph of the same, in hindsight seems like an accidental parallel to Marc Riboud’s photograph of Jan Rose Kasmir, the anti war protestor, presenting a flower to rifle wielding soldiers outside the Pentagon. From the 4th of november 1979 to the 20th of January 1981, 444 days in all, Reza was Newsweek’s correspondent during the hostage crisis and they dubbed him – The 53rd Hostage. The end of the crisis sent conspiracy theorists in over drive as it coincided with Ronald Reagan taking over from Jimmy Carter as the fortieth President of the USA.

——

In the early 1980s my uncle, Bharat Bhatia, owned a wholesale garment agency in Dubai and traded extensively with Iran and it’s neighbour Iraq. Known in the cloth market as a math genius who bore a close resemblance to Elvis Presley he is a die hard fan of Naushad and O P Nayyar. Bhatia lead a peaceful yet lavish life along with his wife and two sons. Till one day, a war broke out between Iran and Iraq and his consignments began to vanish. Cargo ships full of containers laden with raw material from Japan and Korea, disappeared from the Persian Gulf. Yet another conflict that forced yet another Sindhi family into exile, Bhatia and his family moved to the quieter town of Nasik in India.

Reza’s prison contacts came in handy once again during the Iran Iraq war. He was one of the few photographers to go inside Kurdish territory and document the Kurdish resistance. Until one day, when he embarked on a journey that would bring him close to his own exile from his country. Reza got airdropped close to the border, and wanted to reach the farthest post where the battle was it it’s peak. He had to walk several kilometres to reach this post. Exhausted he bent to wipe his face with his left hand when a bomb exploded a few feet away, the shrapnel piercing his hand. “Had my hand not been on my face the shrapnel would have entered my eye and blinded me forever.” Reza was airlifted to a hospital in France and hasn’t returned to Iran since.

Kurds fleeing after their houses were bombarded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, 1980. Photograph courtesy : Nieman Reports
Kurds fleeing after their houses were bombarded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, 1980. Photograph courtesy : Nieman Reports

From Paris he was sent to photograph the bombed streets of Lebanon, disgusted that the war he was witnessing was as bad as the one he left behind. The smoke rising from the explosions in Beirut interfered with his breathing and a doctor advised him six months of rest and clean air in the mountains, the Alps preferably. Reza took the advice seriously and did go to the mountains, not the snow clad ones in Europe, but the rugged unexplored terrain of Afghanistan.

Photograph courtesy : Andrew Baker/www.airfieldfilms.com
Photograph courtesy : Andrew Baker/www.airfieldfilms.com

Before he tells us about his trip to Afghanistan, Reza narrates an incident during the Balkan War. A member of the militia wanted to execute him and insisted that he kneel before him with his hands behind his head. “You’re not God, why should I kneel before you,” said Reza. The standoff continued till the young man’s hands began to shiver and Reza walked away.

——

Reza takes a final sip from the cold cup of green tea. It’s lunch hour at the restaurant, the buffet is spread out and guests are pouring in. Plates and spoons are flying out of the kitchen onto tables and a fight has broken out between two chefs. Am barely able to hear Reza under the noise and Parent insists that we wrap up since they too have to eat lunch and head out to Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s residence in Bombay. A waiter slides up to check a volume of Taschen’s National Geographic Around The World In 125 Years on the adjacent table, open to Reza’s photograph of the Mecca. Photographed from a high rise, on a slow shutter speed, the photograph captures Hajji’s during their seven rounds of the Kaaba, a swirling mass of humans seeking salvation and mercy for their sins. Parent eggs the waiter to flip a few more pages, but he shies away.

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While wrapping up the three volume book set, which contains a tightly edited selection of photographs taken by National Geographic photographers in the 125 years of its existence, I realize that the book is only 7 kilos less in weight than Helmut Newton’s Sumo, also published by Taschen. Newton’s book weighed 30 kgs, and was accompanied by a customized stand designed by Phillippe Starck.

——

Before we enter Mani Bhavan, Reza walks around the building. He tells me later that it’s one of the basic methods of approaching a site that conflict photographers are tuned to, looking for exit and entry points and constructing a mind-map of any new place they venture into. Once inside, he carefully surveys the entrance and is about to enter a manager’s room when I point him to the room next door. He throws a wink at me, one of three that he will throw as the day progresses and begins photographing the manager. He spends his time over it and one realizes what has caught his eye. The manager’s khadi kurta and his bald head and spectacled face, the portraits of the Mahatma, the stacks of books, and of course the cellphone, all indicators of the old and the new inside this sacred space.

He moves slowly to the next room, and the rooms upstairs. Mani bhavan is prepping up for a lecture by Ramachandra Guha for which TV screens are being installed in several rooms which will telecast the talk since the room allotted to Guha can accommodate just a handful. Reza spends time looking at a ten foot tall cutout of Gandhi when a familiar voice taps on my shoulder to ask,”Who is this man?”

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The voice belongs to the sincerest of teachers I have known, Yogesh Kamdar, who now works at Mani Bhavan. Kamdar too, like most of us, is unable to digest Reza’s striking resemblance to the actor Ben Kingsley who portrayed the role of The Mahatma in the Attenborough’s Gandhi. A colleague of the teacher insists on showing us around and opens up Gandhi’s room for us. He seeks blessings by touching the floor before entering and Reza follows suit by doing the same. While I wait outside, Reza winks again. He wants me to photograph him while he photographs the Mahatma’s presence. Reza spends a long time looking at the Mahatma’s padukas (footwear) and his seat. The only words he utters are “I don’t want to leave this place.”

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Before we make our way out, Reza purchases a book that contains Gandhi’s famous quotes. He then buys a dozen postcards and stamps. He informs me that in the night, he will read the quotes and write them on to postcards and send it to his friends and relatives. Each quote, relevant and corresponding to their personalities, and lives. As we leave the building Reza is accosted by two kids selling hair clips and bangles. They speak to him with an accent they must have picked up from years of interacting with tourists. Reza refuses to buy any but leans on the side of his cab and indulges them in a conversation. Only when the girl looks back at me and asks me in hindi, “Why is he crying?” do I notice a giant tear making its way from Reza’s left eye. His wayfarers can’t conceal the rest of the tears that follow and the children are confused. They ask him what’s wrong but he’s overcome by emotion and unable to respond. Reza hugs the siblings, kisses the boy on his forehead and girl on her hair but they keep asking him the reason for his tears. “Because I love you so much, ” he says before entering the cab.

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Inside the taxi, on the way to Kitab Khana, the tears flow freely and only come to a halt after a few minutes when he checks his email. His colleagues back in Paris have designed a statement related to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Earlier in the day, Reza had spoken rather openly to a reporter about his views on terrorism. He hinted at an answer when he said that to truly understand the reason behind terror attacks, we must try and figure who will benefit from Islamophobia. A close friend of the deceased cartoonist Wolinski and a man whose life is dedicated to freedom of expression, Reza cautions that one must also know when one is insulting people knowingly.

—–

At Kitab Khana, Reza searches for photo books. He sees a few and is unimpressed. He asks me if there are any more and I point him to some, he shrugs and asks the manager to show him some more. A loaded question is dropped on us, “Are these the books people buy?”, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. I decide to leave him alone for sometime with his coffee and step outside to buy a nail-cutter to clip a toe nail that has been bothering me since morning.

—–

Sathish, the distributor of the book and Parent decide to part ways with Reza once they are done eating. He signals that we must get a taxi and go to Haji Ali Dargah, a place he went to a decade ago. I was an intern at the Indian Express and remember coming across Ramesh Nair’s photograph of Reza walking on the Marine Drive promenade. Back then, Nair had accurately described him as a soft spoken humble man.

We hop into a cab near Churchgate and Reza makes a small video as we pass by the sea. The sun is about to set, the skyline is silhouetted against an orange sky and the light is on him. He makes an iphone video in slow motion and says, ” Am gonna show this to my family when I get home”.

In the cab, we speak about his contemporaries, James Nachtwey in particular. Nachtwey began photographing conflict a few years after Reza and the two are very good friends but when they meet they never talk shop. Reza insists that his work is very different from Nachtwey’s. “While James,” as he refers to him, “is quite surgical in his approach and shows you the harsh realities of war, I focus more on the people, the survivors and their resilience. If you notice, my photographs are very simple, I don’t play around much and merely react to situations in as unbiased a manner as is humanly possible. I don’t even consider myself as a photographer, I am just a humanist, a storyteller and I have great belief in humanity.” Reza has often voiced that photographs don’t change the world, but they impact and change people, and people go on to change the world. It’s true that the simplest photographs are often the hardest to make and in turn have the widest appeal. He also insists that he doesn’t stage his images – “Reality is a lot more visually appealing than say a production of Speilberg or any Hollywood filmmaker, and that’s one of the many reasons why I like Salgado and his work.”

Photograph courtesy : Andrew Baker/www.airfieldfilms.com
Photograph courtesy : Andrew Baker/www.airfieldfilms.com

Reality is also rather strange and full of odd coincidences. Reza saw his first copy of National Geographic Magazine in a remote village in Afhganistan. His host asked Reza if he could read English. He then called him to his room and pulled out a ragged old copy of the magazine from under his bed. A few years ago, a traveller had left it behind during his stay in the villager’s house. Reza’s host kept the magazine away from his children’s sight and wanted to throw it away, as he felt that the magazine was literature for those who worship the devil. The issue had stories that focussed on man’s first step on the moon. Sadly, he couldn’t throw it away either since his religion didn’t permit the abandonment of books!

It’s merely yet another coincidence as we pass by an Iranian restaurant called Light of Persia when Reza begins to speak about his portrait of slain Afghan resistance leader Ahmed Shah Masoud. In 1982, Reza embarked on a journey looking for Masoud, the man who gave the Soviet invaders and later the Taliban, a hard time.They called him the Lion of Panjshir. He walked miles and miles over mined territory and treacherous mountains to finally make contact with the rebel who was being hunted day and night by 10000 Soviet soldiers. Masoud and Reza’s friendship strengthened over the years and Masoud often referred to Reza as his brother.

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The portrait was born during a conversation between Masoud and Reza, while they took shelter from Russian artillery and shelling in a cave. Given the size of his army, Reza was rather cynical of Masoud who insisted that he will surely defeat the Russians. towards the end of the conversation Reza asked him a simple question, “Let’s assume you do defeat them, what happens to Afghanistan after?”. Masoud’s face wrinkled further and he was lost in thought. The crease on his forehead became more pronounced as he looked towards the sun. The portrait was part of a five image story that earned him the second prize in the General news story category in the World Press Photo Awards that followed.

——-

We reach Haji ali, and Reza spends time photographing and playing with the daughters of a fruit seller. He then heads straight to Haji Ali Juice Center and asks me to order him a Pomegranate Juice, without sugar or ice, natural, just the way it should be. He tells me that in the year before he was arrested he disguised himself as a beggar and spent a day on the streets of Tehran. Why? To understand what it must feel like. Later, when he was sent to photograph a famine, he kept himself hungry for 72 hours. “A man in Paris, well fed and with almost every resource at my disposal, how would I have understood what it means to starve?”, he goes on to add that only when we truly empathize and know what a person is going through can we make images that have the potential to bring about a positive change in our subject’s life.

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Reza’s energy is rather infectious, he walks faster than a teenager and bends his 62 year old knees every few minutes to get the right angle of view from his Sony Rx-1. He smiles and maintains eye contact with strangers and just before we reach the dargah he asks me a question am not qualified to answer, “What is this need for religion that humans have?” He looks around at the picnic spot like atmosphere and in a few seconds answers himself, “It’s probably just for entertainment, a temporary diversion from all our problems and an outing for most families.” Reza doesn’t want to go inside yet and insists on sitting by the sea.

While we are seated on two plastic chairs facing the Arabian Sea, with a glass of tea in our hands, a man is filling a bucket of water from the water trapped between the rocks after the tide has receded. I wonder if the tea is made of the same water, but I bury the thought as Reza begins to tell me some more stories. About the girl in Sarajevo, who wanted to sell her doll so that she could buy food and feed her grandmother and herself. About a five year old boy in Badakshan, his face lit like a crescent moon, who wanted to plant a tree in his bombed out village.

Photograph courtesy : www.r3visual.com.br
Photograph courtesy : http://www.r3visual.com.br

“8th April 1992, around 10 am,” he begins to narrate a story of a photograph he missed. Reza was travelling towards a checkpoint in Afghanistan, on the outskirts of Kabul when an IED exploded near a bus. Several people were dead and many injured and those alive ran away from the bus but Reza ran towards it. He began making a few pictures when he noticed a girl, probably 5 years old. Soaked in blood she looked at him and wailed, “Uncle, save me.” Reza released his finger from the shutter, hugged the girl and carried her to safety, away from the flames. “At that point, she needed my hands.”

The sun has set, time is almost running out and I wonder how many days would be truly enough to hear all Reza’s experiences. A month, a year, or a lifetime.

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At the entrance of the dargah, he stops to make pictures of people taking selfies and group photos. “The light just after the sun has set is fantastic, for digital cameras,” he insists. He intervenes one such group and insists that he take a photo for them with their cellphone. The family of five align themselves on a step and Reza wears a blank look on his face. He opens his left hand, the phone is missing – he opens his right and the phone is absent yet again. He winks a third time in my direction and the phone magically appears from his back pocket. The family isn’t amused but they wait for him to photograph them and rush inside after hastily delivered thank yous.

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—–

We leave our shoes outside and enter the mausoleum, Reza finds a quiet corner and begins to make pictures. No one objects, so I follow suit. All of a sudden he begins to pray. Earlier in the day he had confessed to a reporter that he is not a practicing Muslim and doesn’t pray much. After he’s done we indulge in yet another cup of tea, this time from the canteen of the dargah. I foolishly slip a loose question about the kind of food he’s enjoyed most during his travels. For a man who has travelled to about 100 nations of the world, shared a glass of camel milk with Libyan dictator Gaddafi and boasts of being in possession of roughly 80-90 Sim cards of different countries, he answers rather humbly, “the best food I have had is whatever I got when I was hungry”.

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Reza goes on to ask me about my family which prompts me to ask him about his. How do his wife Rachel and their kids deal with his long absences, does he ever feel homesick? “I got married a day before I turned 40 and my wife was always aware of my travelling lifestyle. When am not around, she makes up for my absence by often showing my pictures to my children and narrating my stories to them. And when I travel, I leave my home where it should be, back home. I give my hundred percent attention to the place and people I am with. ” That very moment a beggar walks close to him and breaks his thoughts. Repelled by the stench of alcohol, Reza insists we move a few feet away. I ask him about his parents and he tells me they passed away a few years ago, in Iran. Reza hasn’t set foot in Iran since over 35 years now, and I bury a question that pops in my head about his presence at their last rites. The answer, I convince myself, is probably not worth the question.

Photograph courtesy : NPR.
Photograph courtesy : NPR. Click on the photograph to listen to an interview of Reza about his book War and Peace.

The sound of a qawwal reaches our ears and we drift in his direction. Four middle aged men, with pan stained teeth singing praises of the prophet while women and men shower ten rupee notes on them. Reza sits by the feet of one the singers, hoping they sing Mast Qalandar, but that doesn’t happen. Half an hour later, he slips a hundred rupee note to the lead singer and we prepare to depart.

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Not before he makes yet another friend named Masoud, the trustee of the dargah. Masoud insists on offering us a detailed tour of the dargah, a history lesson for free. He informs us that the dargah and the mosque is being rebuilt with pure white almost veinless Makrana marble. The marble used in many Jain temples, and Shahjahan’s Taj Mahal not just for it’s purity but for it’s strength. The architect, Chetan Raikar, was given a clear brief that no steel or bricks be used in the construction and instead he use marble blocks of various sizes.

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On our way out, Reza buys 17 keychains made of tiny conches embossed with 17 different letters for his staff back in Paris. He asks me to hold on to it and I drop it inside my bag. He orders himself a glass of “Anar” juice and while we wait for it to arrive he tells me that India has everything it takes to be a great nation, a model country that the world can look up to. He makes a mention of our links to our rich and varied culture, the simplicity of life in the villages, our education, our values, our generosity, the respect for tradition and our constant desire to strive for a better life as some of the things that make this nation great in the opinion of the world. However, three things go against us and often prove to be major hurdles on our road to being a great society – “the conflict between hindus and muslims, our high levels of corruption and the abysmal manner in which we treat our women.” He tells me that often people refer to India as a “Rapist Nation.” Over the years Reza has also observed that the number of people wearing traditional Indian outfits in our metros has declined considerably and that saddens him.

Just as he is about to finish his juice Reza points his camera towards the counter and photographs a pot bellied policeman waiting for his free glass of milk shake. We settle our bill and like every other expense during the day, Reza insists on paying. Once inside the cab, on the way to his hotel, he laughs when I ask him about how has he protected himself from cynicism all these years, a disease most journalists suffer from once they have clocked a few years in the profession. “Poetry,” he says, “I come from a land of poets and their words have kept me sane for all these years. Also, you know, my life, it is like a cyclist going up a mountain slope. If I slow down, I will slide back and fall, I have to keep pedalling”.

——

“I said: what about my eyes?
He said: Keep them on the road.

I said: What about my passion?
He said: Keep it burning.

I said: What about my heart?
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?

I said: Pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

One of Reza’s favourite poems by Rumi, which he mentions during a TEDx talk I saw on youtube before we met. The talk was about Turning Points where Reza speaks about the crucial points of his life, such as exile, conflict, poetry and their role in shaping one’s personality. Reza is acutely aware, that he is himself a turning point for many – the 3500 children in Congo, who he helped reunite with their families after being separated due to the civil war. The new journalists in Afghanistan he trained through his NGO AINA. And of course, a whole bunch of photographers across the globe who ventured out to tell stories with their cameras, inspired by his photographs.

Outside his hotel we shake hands and proceed to go our separate ways. A few steps into my walk towards the station, I hear him calling out my name. I walk back to him and he smiles, “My gifts are still inside your bag.”

A wedding and a funeral

I kick-started 2014 by photographing a dear friend’s wedding in Goa. Am not much of a wedding photographer and it’s also gotten rather difficult to distinguish one photographer from the other since all weddings, broadly, follow the same routine.

This was, however, one of those rare occasions where a client is less of a client and more of a friend, and both bride and groom, insisted on not being part of any staged images. None of those glossy bollywoodesque portraits by the sea, bokeh-laden goofy sequences, pre-wedding portraits, pre pre-wedding portraits that have really no connection with the wedding as such. All that Warren and Ashita expected of me was to shadow them and make some candid pictures.

Their wedding was essentially a long, warm brunch with some of their closest friends. A big party with the best pork vindaloo ever, copious amounts of alcohol and of course, some of the best renditions of The Beatles by some very happy people! Here are some of my favourite images –

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Two weeks later, I received a text message in the middle of the night from a friend, informing of the death of His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community. On hearing of his death, his followers from all across Mumbai thronged outside his house in Malabar Hill causing a stampede in which 18 people died and 40 were severely injured.

The following morning, I planted myself near Chowpatty with my photographer friends from mainstream publications like The Times of India, Indian Express. As much as I hate the use of the term,  funerals of people in the public eye are major events that need to be documented just the way their achievements and lifetimes were. Learning from past experience, I carried some sandwiches with me since I knew most shops and establishments along the route are going to be shut.

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Funerals are also very tricky to photograph, passions run high and anyone can be offended by the mere fact that you are photographing them in their moment of grief. I find it best to make as much eye contact as possible to establish that am not here to capitalize on their feelings. And if anyone takes offense, it’s easiest to apologize and move on to a different location than linger around waiting for your lenses to be smashed. Over the years, one learns that we, members of the media, are also the softest punching bags that people find to vent their anger or grief. Last year, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Gopinath Munde’s funeral in Latur, Maharashtra – his hometown, turned into an all out riot and resulted in a blanket baton charge that left several photographers with swollen buttocks and thighs.

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The Syedna’s funeral procession was unmarked by any such incident. No one paid much attention to us. I only wished I had a sound recorder on me to record the throbbing chants of Ya Hussain.

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After the funeral procession passed by Marine Drive, on my way out, I chanced upon a subtle metaphor, a counter to the senseless wave of intolerance we seem to find ourselves in. On the pavement, Mohammed(13), Aliasgar(12), Burhanuddin(12) and Sehrebano(11), gazed through the glass at statues of Buddha, Ganesh, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and others. Sleepy, yet curious, the kids had come all the way from Ahmedabad, Gujarat with their parents at 7 am to seek blessings and participate in the last rites of their departed spiritual leader. 

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After the Wave

I began my career as a photojournalist in early 2004 as a freelancer for community specific supplements of The Times of India, such as Kalyan and Dombivali Plus, Chembur Plus etc  A few months into it, I hopped over to the Indian Express, Bombay for an internship with their star studded photo department. Those who might know a little bit about photojournalism and newspaper photography in India, will be acutely aware that the Indian Express is responsible for churning out some of the finest photographers and journalists of our country.

2004 went down in everyone’s memory as the year of the Tsunami. Neeraj Priyadarshi, our photo editor and current National Photo Editor of the Indian Express, dispatched Manoj Patil to Nagapattinam while Vikas Khot made his way to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The last 5 days of the year I witnessed Neeraj making frantic calls to both photographers from his cabin, in which, pinned to a board was an unforgettable photograph with many stories attached to it. A 5 x 7 memory of a day when James Nachtwey came calling to their department, dressed in his trademark white shirt and blue jeans.

Both Khot and Patil, were having a tough time making pictures. If they did make any, they were finding it harder to send those images, unlike the wire photographers who were armed with SAT phones. Being the junior-most person of the team, I was exposed first hand to their images, since it was my duty to caption and transmit them nationwide to all the 26 editions of the paper. Published on the first day of 2005, the new year, across all its editions, The Indian Express ran a single photograph, half page. An unforgettable image of hope, of survival, of relief. A photograph made by Khot, depicting a man, a suitcase in each hand, standing on the periphery of Vijayanagar island, announcing to his mother that help has arrived in the form of a tiny boat (gemini boat) manned by the Indian Coast Guard. Those who have seen it, unanimously feel that the photograph has not received it’s full due yet. Hence, the need to revisit the image today.

Over a phone call, Khot narrates the story behind the photograph – “We were having a difficult time in the islands since everything is controlled by the services and they were being cagey about the scale of devastation and number of casualties. Rumours about the number of casualties were flying thick and fast but confirmations were hard to come by since access to the the cluster of 572 islands is strictly controlled. The forces had their priority set on relief, and ferrying the media was a secondary task. We were all stationed in Port Blair, itching to go out and make pictures and draft reports to demonstrate the scale and nature of devastation,  to tell stories of those who survived but without access we were rendered useless.

After a day or two of waiting around we were taken to Campbell Bay. Relief camps were set up around the air force base. I noticed that one of the controlling officers, Milind Patil was delivering instructions in Marathi. I walked up to him and introduced myself as a photographer with Loksatta, the Marathi daily published by the Indian Express Group. Having established a connection with him, I stayed back at the base and travelled on board a 350 tonner rescue vessel with a crew of highly committed 25-26 year old Indian Coast Guard employees to document their relief efforts.”

Decades ago, when the Islands were merged into Indian territory, government employees were transferred from the mainland to the strip to establish the required infrastructure. A majority of them stayed back to establish permanent homes amidst the soothing turquoise landscape. Seated in the boat, battling 4 metre high waves caused by the aftershocks, Khot and the team of soldiers reached one such settlement – Vijaynagar Colony, 18 kilometres off Campbell Bay and a 125 kilometres from the epicentre. He was told by the coast guards that he is free to roam around and make pictures till they manage to evacuate people. Their plan was to ferry women and children in the first round and the men in the second round. “There was really no way to guarantee that they would come back for the second round, anything could go wrong, the boat could capsize or malfunction and I’d be stuck here till the next boat arrives, if it ever arrives.” recalls Khot.

While Khot was making pictures of the devastation and was about to go deeper into the island, he noticed a man close to the dinghy, next to an uprooted tree, yelling out to someone in the distance, behind the photographer. Instinctively Khot made three exposures of the scene. Brandishing two full suitcases, bursting at their seams, Unni Sundaram was called out to his mother and the rest of the islanders announcing the arrival of the coast guard boat, asking them to hurry up. He also became Khot’s tour guide for the rest of the period and took him around the island till the dinghy arrived for the promised second round.

VK-29-IPhotograph courtesy : Vikas Khot/ The Indian Express

“I distinctly remember the scene in the boat when we were departing, those huge waves crashing into us. It’s etched boldly in my memory, all of us holding on to ropes, women, children and the bravest of men, screaming yet grateful to be out from the ruins. It took them decades to build these homes and and they saw it all washed away within minutes. They had no clue about most of their neighbours, and for now their only concern was their next meal. Sadly I couldn’t make any pictures in the boat as that would have meant letting go of the safety rope and toying with my life, ” says Khot.

Khot confesses that the journey of finding the photograph and the photograph itself, both, changed the way he looked at the tragedy. That lone man balancing himself between water and land could be any one of us, a striking metaphor of the duality and struggle of the human condition. A simple image, minus any visual trickery or blatant pointers to the devastation, “comforting” the viewer directly, at the eye level, a mirror of our own instinct to survive.

Former Reuters photographer and yet another product of the Indian Express, Arko Datta’s photograph of a woman crying next to her deceased relative in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu was awarded the Picture of the Year by the prestigious World Press Photo Awards of 2005. In Datta’s photograph too, the visual clue of devastation and death is miniscule and is suggested by the presence of a bloated right hand. A hand that completed an embrace, a hand that toiled for the family, a hand that cared. Khot was unable to enter his image in the competition since he was stationed in Andaman and Nicobar Islands till the 10th of January. He was, in fact, only able to see his image in print, when he got home and stared at a copy of the paper his family members had kept aside for him. “Someday I wish to go back and see if Mr.Sundaram has returned to the island, if those houses have come to life again, ” confides Khot.

06a-Tsunami-2003-mourning-her-relativePhotography courtesy : Arko Datta/Reuters. To know more about the photograph do read Arko’s first person account published in the Mumbai Mirror

Two different images, depicting the aftermath of nature’s fury, photographed by two very different personalities at two different locations. While Datta’s photograph is a poignant lament on the fragile nature of our existence, Khot’s perspective reminds us to not lose hope. The woman in Datta’s photograph is seen lying prostrate, wailing, while her palms face skywards, as if, demanding a reason. Lying prostrate before a God or in prayer more or less signifies an acknowledgment of one’s total unworthiness, a recognition of the need for God’s mercy and is often the posture one assumes in times of a crisis. Khot’s protagonist, stands upright in the midst of chaos, ready to start afresh and his call to his mother is nothing short of a war cry, embodying a rage known only to those who have survived having lost everything but their will stays unharmed.

One photo addresses the viewer at eye level, the way hope stares at us in the darkest of our times – far away, yet close enough. One offers a look at death from a subtle distance, as if one was standing helplessly at a neighbour’s funeral. So close, yet distant enough.

———-

Exactly five years later, a few months before the launch of OPEN, I tagged along with Sudeep Chakravarti to Sri Lanka. Basking in the success of his recently published book, Red Sun – on travelling through the Maoists heartland in India, Sudeep also happens to be an ace scuba diver! With the civil war almost fading, Sudeep and I were to work on a story on the country’s road ahead. We met activists, spoke to locals but the one meeting that stayed with me was the one we had a day before our departure. It was a conversation with Lal Wickrematunge, the brother of Lasantha, founding editor of The Sunday Leader who was assassinated while on his way to work, just a few weeks before we arrived. After his brother’s death, Lal took over as the editor and in his cabin, which was, till a few days ago his elder brother’s, in a corner by the door sat a blue plastic bag. It contained Lasantha’s trousers, his shirt and a few other items. Just the way the cops handed it over.

Three days before our exit, we headed down south to Hikkaduwa, a tourist town on the picturesque Galle Colombo highway famous amongst surfers and divers. While I made pictures, Sudeep clocked a dive. On our way in to the town, I noticed several broken houses on both sides of the highway. The houses drifted past us for the next few kilometres, peeping through over grown weeds and creepers. Our driver told us that these houses were damaged during the 2004 tsunami and remain abandoned since. On our way back, under a bland overcast sky, I made some quick pictures of the remains. What may have once been houses filled with laughter now reduced to rubble. Homes that worshipped the waves, felled by a raging wave on an angry December’s night.

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The First Local

In 2011, I lost several hours of sleep photographing commuters onboard the last train that departs from Churchgate at 1 am. Sleepy and tired, heading home after a long day’s work, sure that the prize at the end of the journey is the safe environs of their home. Often I would encounter bouncers, transgenders, bankers after a particularly late shift due to an upcoming merger, college kids after a party, or drunks peeing out of the moving train. Sometimes people were okay with me making pictures, other times they’d stare blankly and once an entire compartment ganged up on me, threatening to throw my gear off the train but eventually mellowed down and narrated the lack of water and electricity in their localities on the northernmost edge of the island city. The late hours began messing with my days, and I soon lost interest, though, every once a while I end up being a traveller on that train and I can’t not make pictures!

The last train made me wonder, “What would the first train look like, who are the people travelling on it?” Back in college, I skipped class to watch Indian Ocean playing at a venue nearby. Over the years, I began to appreciate the nuances and technical superiority of Indian Ocean but that evening I found them rather boring. Two hours later my friends and I were in Nerul, on the outskirts of the city, head-banging to Megadeth covers by bands such as Naked Earth, Killer Tomatoes, etc. The gig went on till 3 in the morning and I remember taking the first train out. We were surrounded by vegetable and flower sellers, fish vendors and some railway officials.

Four nights ago, on a whim, I hopped on the last local and made my way to Virar. For a weekday, the last local was packed to the brim, with no space to stand comfortably or sit. Those who sat on the floor, near the footboard, wouldn’t budge, even if your shoes grazed their trousers. I chose to hop compartments at every station and finally landed up in the Luggage section where a few men were swigging McDowells whisky, smoking beedis and playing cards. They told me they were regulars and one of them worked at a liquor shop. For obvious reasons, I chose to not make any photos of the scene. I might make a few once I clock a few more trips and shared a drink or two with them.

2:30 am – The scene at Virar was surreal – a whole bunch of people asleep near the ticket counters. A policeman told me that these are commuters that have either arrived too early from their homes or have arrived on outstation trains and shuttles and are waiting for a connection to get to their relatives, or homes. One man slept rather comfortably on the granite shelf of the Ticket counter, when I realized the absence of my friend, photographer Anushree Fadnavis who photographs extensively inside the second class ladies compartment of the train. Here’s a link to her series which was featured on an Instagram feed I curate called Katha – dedicated to long form photo essays crafted using a cellphone camera – http://instagram.com/katha_collective.

I caught up with Fadnavis, and we walked around till we went our separate ways. Making pictures for me and a lot of photographers I know is a solitary act and it’s rather uncomfortable to be doing so in a duo or worse, large groups of SLR wielding folks who at times pop in your frames and make a mess of a photo that was in the making for a while. While one half of the station was catching up on its sleep the other was prepping up for the arrival of the 3:25 am train, the first one!

Flower sellers arrive, armed with stacks of banana leaves and plonk them near the compartments they regularly get in. Koli women with empty fish baskets, wait near the ladies compartments. They go all the way to the docks to buy fresh catch at wholesale rates, which they sell it for retail prices in the local fish markets in Virar. Since the train arriving has passenger rakes and just three tiny luggage compartments, the vendors have no option but to carry their sacks of fresh flowers in the regular compartments.

The arrival horn of the train wakes up the sleeping commuters and a few of the residents who live adjacent to the station. An orderly, well practiced chaos unfolds – baskets and gunny bags are loaded, the stacks of banana leaves are tied to poles so that they don’t bend and break, and almost immediately after loading their goods, the vendors fold themselves up in blankets and are about to go to sleep. A gentle nudge of the station coincides with the murmurs of a prayer on everyone’s lips.

Ideally, there should be two separate trains, one for the passengers and a luggage train for the traders.

By the next two stations, the train is packed, much like it is during rush hour in the mornings and evenings. Almost everyone has surrendered to the gentle rocking and are asleep. An argument lights up between two men, one is feeling cold and wants the door closed while the other wants to enjoy the cool draft. “Aaj main nahaakey aaya hoon, isiliye garam lag rela hai,” he says jokingly.(I have had a bath today and hence am not feeling too cold). Other unwashed commuters request him to comply, he relinquishes control of the door and it is shut.

Am hopping compartments again, while Anushree has gotten off at her station and is on her way home. Standing at the footboard, I notice a eunuch about to enter my compartment. She touches the vacant space next to my right foot, seeks blessings from the train, and enters inside. It’s business time and she goes about seeking alms from the passengers who give willingly.

In my next compartment, a couple enters. They speak softly to each other, inviting stares. Probably returning home after a party. I turn behind, merging with the grey insides of the walls and sprawled above a group of students heading for a trek, I see a man sleeping on the luggage rack. How in the world did he get there?  Abuse is hurled, elbows fly, noses squished and feet trampled as the train arrives at Dadar – home to the flower market of Bombay.

Relatively empty now, almost 20 minutes later we make our way into Churchgate. The ones that are awake, go around waking up the sleepers. The fisher women rush to occupy the waiting taxi cabs. Some of them though make a dash for the restrooms first. Outside the station, I buy myself a glass of tea and a bread and butter sandwich and sit on the bus stop. It reminds me of the time when 5 long haired and skinny boys were returning from the gig at Nerul. We had to change trains at Dadar but we were hungry and stepped out looking for something to eat. Drenched in tungsten light, the flower market was abuzz. We came across a tea seller who insisted we try his chocolate flavoured chai, nothing but half a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk molten into the tea while it’s made. He was right, the tea was unforgettable indeed.

First train 20141 First train 20142 First train 20143To shield himself from the cold, a man wraps a handkerchief around his ears while he waits in the subway for the train to arrive. First train 20144A flower seller offers a tiny rope to his friend so that he can tie the end of a roll of banana leaves that has come undone. First train 20145 First train 20146Every square inch of space is utilized. First train 20147 First train 201410A sleepy commuter looks on as a eunuch enters the compartment.First train 20149Take as many photos as you want, but don’t ask me any questions, I have no time.First train 20148First train 201411 First train 201412Two brothers. First train 201413Commuters watch as a worker lays tiles on the platform at Lower Parel station.First train 201414 First train 201415