Traveling to be a Stranger

Vizag Road [image author]
Bhavana Nissima

I wanted to write on this topic. That it was about me. And how I travel. But I forgot to write. And then I wrote.

Maybe because I recently discovered how to enjoy the 15 minute-navigation through heavy traffic and three signals to reach the park that is bang opposite my home. I am not allowed to cross over (you know the jaywalk), so I take a circuitous route. Not a pleasant one with horns blowing and dust from wheels and the recently inaugurated metro whizzing over old dug-out gravel. But I have learned to enjoy it. Like I can tell you how the pavement was broken some months back and now it is fixed and a homeless gal sits there. We look at each other and I worry. I noticed she changed her clothes yesterday and her hair was combed and clean. I wonder where she bathes. And I worry. I wish I stayed home so she could live with me.

The signal turns red and I cross. I play music when I walk. Music helps me see differently. The light dims, horns fade out, and cars become characters and people, symbols. I wanted to walk in Srinagar. Alone. No music. I think I walked alone. I mean I had a friend, a chaperone of kinds. But sometimes you know how you can withdraw and withdraw and only you and what you see remains? I walked like that over dusty roads, sprinkled with men in Pheran who didn’t notice me. And women too, in their pretty embroidered versions whom I gawked at. Like this woman, I saw in green Pheran with a lovely purse next to a vegetable shop which sold lotus stems from Dal lake and radishes and carrots and turnips. And some potatoes too. I felt like a stranger and I am no stranger to vegetable markets. Or flower markets for that matter. I get markets, I get sellers, I get produce. I have visited, I think, wholesale flower markets in all Indian metros. In Srinagar, there were no flowers. It was winter, they said. There are no flowers in winter. I refused to believe. There must be somewhere, crouching by the corner of a road, or hidden in an undershrub, in some pot, safe in someone’s warm house, a tiny, tiny flower, holding out hope, to smile through my heart.

The Chinar, though, still held some leaves. I stared and clung on to hope. To belong. In Amritsar I found a flower blooming in December. I kneeled and clicked rapidly on my phone. I wonder why it was so important to see a flower. Later when I visited Chennai, I wanted fragrant flowers. The sellers looked at me with contempt. But this is winter, they said. I found a string of jasmine at the Eliot Beach. I held it with moist eyes.

The vegetable market in Srinagar was next to a CRPF outpost. There was no board that said so. Just some barbed wires with sandbags behind them. And a dilapidated building further behind. You know there are people inside it, breathing, living and I thought of Zero Dark Thirty and then Hurt Locker. And slowed down.

Have you seen Pataleshwar caves in Pune on Jangli Maharaj Road? Close to glass-tinted buildings? By the many street food vendors whose carts light up the night? How the old, the new and the popular co-exist. Different worlds co-exist in different ways. In Srinagar, worlds merge as a unique colour palette – the introverted brown and grey and black of the outpost, by the green and red and orange of the vegetable shop, on dusk-laden streets on a silent wintry afternoon with rainbow Pherans walking to the possibilities of a burning Kanger in their homes. Of guns and vegetables, uniforms and Pherans next to each other.

You learn to appreciate colour palettes in the desert. Where the most fragrant flower blooms once a year for one night, and the deadliest of snakes reside, where resilience takes on a different meaning –you begin to recognize the many shades of brown. You grow quieter inside, as each moment opens to reveal the micro-moments, till you recognize that twitch on your hand, the ache in your shoulder, and then release the sigh. Unfortunately, it soon becomes the way you think the world should be. Till you return to the river valley and like a Frenchwoman, you complain — tone down the spices.

No, I have never been to France. Not even to its airport. I wanted to. It just didn’t work out. I ended up in Frankfurt twice and Heathrow. In Srinagar airport, I saw pigeons. After being frisked four times. I wish I knew there would be pigeons; I could have brought some grains. I think the security wouldn’t have given me a hard time about it. I could say I want to feed the pigeons as they walk by the track cast by the sun and I want to follow them to where the sun goes. Oh, I wish, I wish I could fly.

I do write several pieces on flying. It is my favourite pastime anywhere. Like at Thousand Lights in Chennai, once I soared above the traffic jam to an A R Rahman music. And I will always love that signal and that evening for that moment when the honks didn’t matter when the wait was delirious.

Sometimes I fly in a share auto in Hyderabad. Like literally. The drivers can sway and rumble and soar over cracked-up roads to disco-lights and Telugu film music. I have sat with browned vegetable vendors and fruit vendors and beggars and those ladies who insist on giving you tikka on Fridays. Once the tikka is given, you have accepted the Goddess’s blessings and now owe them money. That is trade across worldly realms.

In the share auto, no one trades. We sit with each other. Early morning, somber and quiet. Late afternoon with women on their way home. And evenings with vendors with their baskets, laborers with packed biryanis, and occasional government servants with their purses and creased foreheads. There are seniors, too, who take the share auto. I like it here amongst strangers– companions on a journey in a space that we have to share, a home for now. Did you know that sometimes a share auto can load from 11-14 people at a time?

I love monsoons in a share auto. When the rain thrashes through, laying droplets over your skin, and the wind rises rhythmically, on a darkening evening, I sit near wizened hands, intense eyes, muscular frames, and become quiet. I love sunsets too. Right behind, in the back of the auto where the flap gives away to form a window for this home, I watch the magnificent sunset confidently. Sunsets I fight for a seat facing the sun. I liked sunset on Dal Lake too. Quiet, serene and empty. The water of the lake didn’t ripple. It lay near the steps paralyzed. And the sun spread over it.

No, I didn’t take the Shikara ride. I don’t like to be guided. I like to go where my heart urges me too. Like that sunset in Mussourie with my friends. We got up from our seats and felt we needed to go ahead. And just across the bend, the sun smiled and set over the vast valley. We thought he wanted to show off. We felt special. You know, Ruskin Bond lived two houses from that bend. I did look up at his window like a sky gazer waiting for a meteor shower. Nah, I didn’t go to his house. I don’t know why.

I did walk at night into Mussourie market, just when the locals were shuttering down their shops. Late evening is for residents. The tourists hang out in restaurants and pubs and hotels. Residents sit outside shops or stroll the road and clump in corners. When you walk through them, you know you are an outsider. You don’t belong.

In Amritsar, in the winter afternoon, women sit outside their home, by the road, in their chairs, knitting, and working and sharing stories with neighbors. I wanted to learn knitting there. Here the vegetable vendor pushes his cart through these roads in the afternoon. Women shop, together. It is their time of the day. I wanted to join in.

In Srinagar, I was not exactly a stranger. I belonged. To not them.

I am not exactly a stranger in Chennai too when I speak. My words and accent marking me as an outsider. I belong. To not them. So I wade in to mask the accent with the fragrance of jasmine flowers. I buy them every day when I am there. I walk roads to find sellers. Mostly to make friends with them. Once, a flower seller and I shared a cup of tea and biscuits. I don’t remember what led to this moment. Maybe she felt I was a guest at her stall, her stall was perhaps her home, and that I had appreciated her wares and I had smiled. She smiled back and asked me to tea like good hosts do. We stood and sipped on ginger tea over rounds of white jasmine and orange Kanakabaram and yellow chrysanthemums.

I once sat in for a flower seller in Hyderabad. She had to weave in a garland but there were many customers who wanted loose flowers for prayer. So I offered to step in while she weaved. She let me. I was the flower-seller for that 30 minutes. I was good at it, I thought. I never made friends with flower sellers in New Mexico. I grew spring flowers there or walked by honeysuckle shrubs and smelt lilacs. I learned to read roads by the plants they nurtured. The street corner house where there is an apricot tree and the one with green apples and they have started fruiting. This one here has lilacs in full bloom. And I can always walk by that one with rosemary in front and honeysuckle behind.

In New Mexico, I made friends with the landscape. My dearest friend was the Sandias. The mountains there turned watermelon at sunset and wore a cap of snow in winter. In Albuquerque, you found your direction based on where you saw the mountain.

Long back, I had found a home in the mountains. Down a pine forest in the Himalayas, by a stream. I go back to that place often in my mind. Sometimes that memory merges with a canyon in Northern Nicaragua – Canyon de Somoto. Don’t ask me why. I guess it was a land of no history – a space beyond human habitation and timeless. And maybe because Dochita was with me. The nurse that rode into mountains to give help where others couldn’t. The woman who had been shot twice. The one who said she was my Nicaraguan Mumma. Maybe because she was history that I could embrace in a body.

And move on.

I found a stream to come home to in South India too. Close to the Tamil Nadu-Andhra border, in a lush-green Eastern Ghats group of hills. The group had followed it upstream to discover a hidden mountain pool. We had cooked by that pool, Maggie, and bread and made chai. We had chatted under the stars and slept under tarps on a monsoon night. I like the stream better. I like the flow. I like to flow.

Perhaps that is what was out of place in Srinagar. That it did not flow. Under failing facades, before ancient tombs, by the still waters and lonely chinars, time collapsed. That I could not even be a stranger.The unknown known before a knowing. Like the homeless gal down the road from my home that I worry about and yet know not.

Perhaps this is why I travel. To visit another as a stranger. No history, no shared timelines, no debts to pay or collect, no judgments, no prerequisites. To return to another as a clean slate. And say hello.

And forget.

Bhavana Nissima is a writing coach and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in intercultural and gender communication from University of New Mexico, US, besides being a certified NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming Practitioner). She has co-authored and co-edited several books and found her own company Lightweaver Consultants that offers training in writing and mentoring.
This piece first appeared here

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