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Food and its discontents

I NEVER did get to see one of the 400 temples lining the periphery of Pushkar lake like ants round a cornflake. It's not that I wasn't interested; I just couldn't bear the volatile mix of extreme heat and capital investment in divine stocks. On the whole, Hindu temples provide a pretty stress-free environment for prayer and contemplation. The problem in Pushkar was getting to them. Every time I ventured out of the 'Palace' guest house, I had to renegotiate my sense of smell to accommodate for the sewer stench, and then circumnavigate tens of pseudo-sadhus (Hindu holy men), each more eager than the next to give me and my extended family a substantial blessing. The bigger the blessing, the more money they demanded.

On the second day of heat stroke, as I pushed through the marketplace in a haze, one sadhu thrust a bunch of flowers in my hands, compelling me to follow him to the lake for a blessing. I politely declined and tried to return the flowers but he refused, in the hope that I might change my mind. When that didn't work, he sent one of his heavies over to coerce me into purchasing a blessing.

"Flowers not allowed in market place. Go to lake," said a rather unpleasant burly man wagging his hairy finger.

My 'heat-oppressed' brain made me irritable. Without thinking too much, I grabbed the sadhu's hands and dumped the flowers into them.
"No blessing. No lake. Agnostic on vacation, thank you very much."
I returned to the 'Palace' where a cleaner was waiting outside my room with a mini-broom. I let her in and watched with amusement as she beat the dirt in circles, creating funnel-shaped clouds of dust around the room. Once the dust had settled again, she intimated that the work was done and stretched out her hand, palm facing upwards. I gave a few rupees for the dust readjustment and collapsed on the bed.

By 6pm, the life I previously inhabited came back in drabs. A breeze that teased from the north helped me out of my sweat bath. Something had to give. I settled my bill, hired a suitcase rickshaw and set off in search of sweeter settings. My unofficial prayers were answered in the form of Seventh Heaven; a haveli hotel. The rooms were built around a spacious marble courtyard with a cooling fountain at its heart and swinging couches on each floor. I found my paradise. The owner, Anoop, seemed to understand the meaning too. His email address began with the words 'Anoop loves you…', while his business card read: "Rent a room, meditate, levitate, vegetate…"

It was in Seventh Heaven that I met Matthew Powell. A meeting that led to numerous unplanned adventures together in Orchha, Khajuraho, Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and eventually atop the Himalayan mountain range in Nepal. Our first adventure, however, was using the services of Indian Railways for the first time to return to Delhi.
After two days of levitating in Seventh Heaven, we hired a taxi to the train station. Our driver, who went by the name of 'Captain', drove up in an all-white Ambassador, India's answer to Mercedes before global forces removed its protectionist policies.

Leaving Pushkar, we passed a wedding procession where sari-clad women, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, danced to the unidentifiable tune of a wedding band. Apart from the band, the crowd was all female. Some were even performing a teasing version of the Dance of the Seven Veils to the delight of passers-by. The band's role was less clear. Trumpets were blown at disparate intervals in a range of octaves while the man fingering the synthesiser had mastered the art of executing random sounds.
At the train station, Matt and I looked at the seat listings on the wall to see if our last minute reservations had made it through. Two familiar yet somewhat alien names were identified: 'Malhuw Poweti, S. Eurivesh.'

"Do you think that's us?" asked Matt.
"I'll take 'em," I said as we rushed to the waiting train.
On the platform, I put my mean face on. Begging children tugged at my trousers, motioning hand to mouth, and repeating: "Khana, khana (food), chappati."
How to deal with in-your-face poverty is a very subjective issue that in my case was often dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, I would give money to those I thought in need, in the hope it would not end up in the hands of the syndicates who controlled a large number of the begging population. The preferred option though was to buy food for those asking and put it in their hands. Other times, I would stare into space, ignoring the cries of hunger and walk on. On this occasion, at a very busy train station, I was unwilling to reach into my bag, pull out rupees from my wallet and hand them over to an increasing crowd of child beggars.

My lips tightened and my eyes narrowed as I side-stepped a young boy wearing a white kurta (long shirt) and kufi (Islamic prayer hat) whose legs had been made redundant by polio. He was balanced on a wooden board, skinny legs tucked under torso, using one hand to roll the wheels of the board forward while begging with the other. I quickly boarded the train.

The Shatabdi Express was a compartment of luxury on wheels in an otherwise budget adventure. To start, the air conditioning was so cold, it proved impossible to retain water. I urinated more times on the Shatabdi than I did in the four days I fried in Pushkar. Within half an hour of departure, we were each served with individual tea flasks, biscuits, sandwiches, samozas, chilled mango juice, hard boiled sweets and delightful Nathu sweets. For me, Indian Railways was already on my list of favourite legal entities but the feast did not end there. After some time, we were served soup and bread sticks, later followed by a full-on Indian thali (meze-type thing). The guy next to me enjoyed his meal so much he burped without stealth on three occasions. It also struck me how passengers would return unwanted food items to the catering staff so they wouldn't go to waste. Having been to numerous press lunches, I had never seen the return of free food before. Just when I thought I had already found my Shangri-la, a tub of Kwality Wall's ice-cream came my way to confirm it.

As I feasted on dessert, despite all my rationale and justifications, the image of the Muslim boy at the platform came back to haunt me as I sat safe on the train, with an excess of rupees in my pocket.

Source: Cyprus Mail

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