Bishwanath Gosh travels in places where you stop but never get off
There are two things you prepare yourself for while
stepping out of a railway station in India, especially north
India. One is, of course, the horde of autorickshaw drivers
and rickshaw pullers who almost grab you by the arm in
their eagerness to take you to your destination. The other
comprises the clusters of shabby buildings that surround it:
cheap hotels, restaurants whose kitchens are either at their
entrance or on the pavement, paan shops, phone booths,
and dilapidated houses where people seem to have been
living for centuries watching the railway station
metamorphose from a British-era piece of architecture to
a shelter for chaos where everybody has an equal claim to
the property—from the poor and the homeless to the
beggar and the thief, and the tout and the pimp. The
railway station, for them, is home-cum-workplace-cum club.
Unlike in Mughal Sarai, I was free of many anxieties this
time because the sun was on my side. It was only 5 pm
and a matter of minutes before I confidently strode past
the army of drivers and rickshaw pullers and walked into
one of the hotels across the station and found a room for
myself. I order
the best of snacks, considering they are ridiculously cheap
here. And then, pleasantly high on two drinks, or maybe
three, I step out to see Jhansi by night.
My reverie was broken by the question I dreaded the
most: ‘Saahab, kahaan jaana hai?’—Sir, where would you
like to go? The questioner was a middle-aged man whose
white shirt formed a horizontal tent at his belly. I ignored
him and many others of his kind and confidently walked
straight out of the station, only to discover that there were
no buildings outside.
Nowhere, I told him, and started walking on the road
that ran perpendicular to the station. He had just begun to rattle off names of hotels when,
to my great surprise, I heard my name being called from
behind—clearly and loudly. I turned around, and it took
me precisely two seconds to place the face I had last seen
twenty years ago. My luck changed.
Vikas Saxena was my junior at school in Kanpur. I don’t
recall the two of us having even a single conversation
during all those years at school: we only acknowledged
each other’s presence with a smile or a hello. That
familiarity was now paying dividends after two decades as
Vikas and I stood face to face like long-lost friends. We
were now off on his scooter to what according to him was
the best hotel in Jhansi. Till a moment ago, I was a
nervous witness to the chaos at the Elite intersection. Now
I was gleefully a part of it.
The hotel was pleasant indeed, considering it had a huge
lobby and a full-fledged, computerised reception area
manned by courteous staff. The receptionist himself showed
me around some rooms so that I could choose. I couldn’t
have asked for more.
Soon, Vikas and I were sitting in my air-conditioned
room, taking stock of the water that had flowed under the
bridge all these years. Even though we hardly knew each
other at school, we had plenty of friends in common
whom I had lost track of but I always wondered what they
must be up to. Vikas, with whatever information at his
disposal, updated me on one friend after the other. Some
of them were doing very well, a few extraordinarily well:
one of them was in NASA, another in the IAS, while a
few others had taken the IIT-to-IIM route. A majority of
them, however, had settled into the humdrum of middleclass
life—working in banks or insurance companies or as
sales managers with pharmaceutical companies. A handful
of them had now reached the rank of colonel in the army.
Vikas said he too was doing very well till a few years
ago, having made a lot of money—seventy lakhs of rupees,
according to him—from the stock exchange at Kanpur.
But something went wrong somewhere and he lost all the
money and moved to Jhansi at the insistence of his inlaws,
who lived there. He explained to me what went
wrong, but being deliberately illiterate when it comes to
the stock market, I couldn’t grasp the nuances of his story.
But he wasn’t badly off in Jhansi, where he now supplied
surgical instruments to local hospitals, including the ones
run by the railways. He had a wife and a two-year-old
daughter, whom I met later that evening. Together, they
presented the picture of a happy family that did not bear
any grudge against life.
‘I had to start from scratch. Over the years I generated
credibility and began to get business,’ he said. As I listened
to him, I did not realise that all this while, he had also
been watching the NDTV Profit channel. It was the day
when the Sensex did a rollercoaster, changing the course
of the evening for millions of people, and it must have
been quite a task for Vikas to divide his attention between
me and the excited anchors of the news channel.
I asked him about Jhansi. ‘Chhota sa shahar hai. Kya
rakkha hai yahaan,’ he dismissed the question—it is a small
town, there’s nothing out here. His attention returned to
the TV. He was watching the news about the rise and fall
of the Sensex just like a retired cricketer would be
watching a one-day match: been there and done that, but
still catching up with what’s going on.
I asked him about places to see. He said, as I expected,
there was nothing much except the fort. But there was
Orchha, 19 km away, and Khajuraho, 176 km away. I
decided to pack these places into my itinerary, come what
may. How could one miss Khajuraho after having come all
the way to Jhansi which, as I discovered, was the nearest
The last time I had been to Khajuraho was in 1978, as
an eight-year-old, when one was still several years away
from discovering the sensations that its temples celebrated.
At the time, the visit to Khajuraho was only a family
outing, which it indeed was, as two dozen Bengali families
in the neighbourhood trooped into two buses at four o’
clock one Sunday morning and took off for the land of
Kama Sutra. I didn’t have many memories of the outing,
except that I saw tall temples sprouting from large, green
lawns and my parents buying a set of sculptures (for a
family friend) which I was forbidden from even looking at.
But there are plenty of black-and-white pictures, taken of
the trip from an Agfa camera, that stand testimony to my
subconscious initiation into a world whose respected
citizen I became years later. I don’t know how families
with adolescent children dealt with the excursion; maybe
they had opted out. I still preserve a souvenir from that
trip: a black statue of Shiva which I made my parents buy
as compensation for not letting me see the sculptures they
I saw Vikas off outside the hotel. Along with us emerged
a posse of women—of different shapes and sizes but
uniformly plump and decked up. A kitty party must have
just ended. Almost each one had a car waiting, and the
remaining few hitched a ride. After more than seven years
of living in Chennai, I found it odd that jasmine flowers
should be missing from their hair, but I quickly reminded
myself that I was now on the other side of the Vindhyas.
Vikas took off on his scooter, promising to return in an
I was enquiring about taxi fares to Khajuraho at the
reception when Vikas returned. He advised me to take the
bus. ‘You can go for free. I know a travel agent who sends
busloads of foreigners everyday to Khajuraho. You just
hop into one of the buses. That’s it,’ he said. I didn’t like
the idea: I wanted to travel to Khajuraho, and not make
a journey to it. But I found it difficult to say no when he
insisted that I come right away to the travel agent, whose
office happened to be next-door.
At the agent’s office, no one seemed to be familiar with
Vikas. They looked at him with the expression of ‘Yes?
What can I do for you?’ He dropped a few names, but
none of those people happened to be around at the
moment. A bit embarrassed now, Vikas told me that it
wasn’t a bad idea to take a taxi after all, because the hotel
would ensure that the rates were reasonable.
We walked out on the main road. He said he was taking
me to a dhaba where we would be having a drink. I
gleefully followed him: ever since I moved to Chennai I
had never spent time in a real dhaba, except popular
restaurants whose signboards have borrowed the word to
give their joints a rustic, Punjabi touch. I could have
walked into one of the dhabas on the Elite Chauraha, but
without interesting company, such places appear soulless.
At the dhaba, Vikas was warmly welcomed by the
young owner who was manning the tandoor installed on
the pavement. ‘What a coincidence that you came today.
I am making Afghani chicken—for the first time,’ he said.
Vikas introduced him to me and we shook hands. His
name was Jagat. He asked us to take our seats inside while
he gave finishing touches to the new dish.
As we settled on one of the wooden benches, I noticed
the writing on the wall across, huge letter painted in red:
‘Sharaab peena sakht manaa hai’—Consuming alcohol is
Vikas motioned one of the boys to come over. ‘What
would you like to have?’ Vikas asked me, ‘I don’t drink
much these days. I will take only a little from whatever
you order.’ I gave the money and asked for whisky. Vikas
told the boy with an air of supreme authority, ‘Daudte hue
jaana, haanfte hue aana’—Go running and come back
panting. In other words, get it quick.
Soon we were drinking from steel tumblers, with the
whisky bottle ‘hidden’ under the table. The idea was not
to offend customers who might be walking into the dhaba
just for the food. But the exercise in secrecy seemed to be
pointless as most of the customers could be seen taking
measured sips from the steel tumblers at regular intervals—
something you wouldn’t do if a tumbler contained plain
The dhaba used to be a ‘tent house’, supplying tents for
weddings and other functions, till two years ago when
Jagat decided to fully exploit his vantage location on the
main road. So a man who supervised pitching of tents was
now grilling chicken. ‘The profit is bigger in the food
business, provided it does well,’ he said.
I asked Jagat if he was happy living in Jhansi, or ever
dreamt of working in a big city like Delhi. ‘Why, do you
have any job in mind in Delhi?’ he asked with utmost
seriousness, perhaps mistaking my question for a veiled
offer. When I clarified that I only wanted to know if he
ever nursed ambitions of migrating to a big city to make
more money, he once again asked, ‘Why, do you have a
job for me?’ I dropped the subject and asked him if he
would like to have a drink. Jagat joined his palms into a
namaste—the polite way of refusing food or drink in north
Jagat returned to give the Afghani touch to more
chicken pieces, while Vikas and I returned to finishing the
whisky. So far, he had updated me about the boys in our
school, and now, under the mild influence of alcohol,
began recalling the names of the girls who were sought
after back then. But barring three or four he was still in
touch with, he could barely give any information about
the rest of the girls, including those I would have liked to
see in the prime of womanhood.
Vikas, the more I observed him that evening, fitted the
description given by Bhagat about the people of Jhansi—
that they are content with what they have. On one hand,
Vikas resented Jhansi—murders were routine, streets were
unsafe, development was limited. On the other hand, his
life had fallen into a pattern, and he did not seem the kind
who would trade the pattern for a better lifestyle in case
that was promised in another city. But so long as he was
happy, how did anything else matter? And happy he was,
watching the attention-grabbing antics of his small daughter
in his modest but cosy home.
I felt like going to Orchha. I had seen pictures of the
place—narrow streets, imposing medieval buildings set
against a blue sky—and been harbouring a desire to go
there someday. The time had come now. Somehow I had
always believed that Orchha was in Madhya Pradesh, and
I was a bit surprised that it should be in Uttar Pradesh, just
19 km away from Jhansi. But I was correct: Jhansi sits right
on the throat of the small, bitter-gourd-shaped incursion
that the border of Uttar Pradesh makes into Madhya
Pradesh. If Jhansi were a human being stretching his hands
sideways, each of the hands would be extending over to
the territory of Madhya Pradesh. And Orchha, even
though at a stone’s throw, fell in the neighbouring state.
I called up the reception and asked them to get me a taxi.
The idea was to be back by noon, so that I could devote
the rest of the day to Jhansi.
The bell rang and when I opened the door, a boy
presented himself. He was to take me to Orchha, not in
a taxi, but in an autorickshaw. I was a bit relieved: if an
autorickshaw could take me there, the journey obviously
was not going to be long and rough. I was glad to be
getting out of Jhansi: somehow I felt I had been living
here for decades, perhaps because it is barely four hours in
a train from Kanpur where I lived for the first twenty three
years of my life.
A sticker on the windscreen of the autorickshaw quoted
an Urdu couplet:
Hum kis kis ki nazar to pehchaane, sabki nazar mein rehte
Kismat hi kuchh aisi payi hai, har waqt safar karte hain.
It loosely translates as:
I might not recognise everybody, but everybody
Such is my destiny that I am always on the road.
In Urdu-speaking north India, it is common to find public
transport vehicles painted or pasted with such couplets that
urge you to look at the driver as a man who has a heart
and not as a man without one. I can never forget one
couplet I read on a similar sticker pasted on the windscreen
of a three-wheeler tempo years ago in Kanpur. It reminded
Aapki zindagi hai biscuit aur cake se
hamari zindagi hai steering aur brake se.
It rhymes even when translated:
Your life is all about biscuits and cake,
Our life is all about steering and brake.
Suddenly, the autorickshaw came to a halt. The boy
driver had no clue why. He opened the tool box and,
asking me to remain seated, started meddling with the
engine. He fixed the problem and we were off again, only
to sputter to a halt a few yards later. Once again he
opened the tool box and went to the backside of the
vehicle to open the engine. The fifty-yard trips went on
for a while till we were at a petrol pump, where he told
me that something was seriously wrong with his vehicle
and that he would send for another autorickshaw to take
me to Orchha. He made a call—from my mobile phone—
and asked me to wait. I did not mind.
I went across the road and stood under a tree and lit a
cigarette. I could have spent the rest of my day there, if
only someone had brought me a charpoy and a book and
maybe the lunch that farmers eat when they are out on the
fields. I have always been curious about a farmer’s meal,
but I think I know what he eats: five or six rotis with a
little daal and a peeled, full-sized onion. Or maybe just the
rotis and the onion, when he is very poor. When you are
toiling in the fields from dawn to dusk, you earn a meal
instead of being entitled to it, and in such a case, even dry
roti and onion becomes a delicacy. And if you happen to
drop a scoop of pickle or chutney on the bunch of rotis,
it becomes a full-course meal.
Finally, two boys arrived—not in an autorickshaw but
on a bike. So riding pillion and smelling the hair of a total stranger, I was back in the
hotel. I decided to see Orchha on my way to Khajuraho,
maybe the next morning.
The sun was too harsh now for anyone to be aimlessly
roaming the streets of Jhansi. So what could I do now?
Why worry, when there was Mehfil-e-Shaam, the inhouse
bar of my hotel?
I was, as I had expected, the only one in the bar. Behind
the counter sat the bartender drinking tea and watching
TV. A Sunny Deol movie was on. A waiter appeared as
soon as I took a table, facing the TV, and when I looked
at the menu, I had half a mind to settle in Jhansi:
Single Malt Rs 70 (50 ml)
Royal Challenge Rs 45 (50 ml)
Simron Off Rs 50 (50 ml)
The rates dipped as one climbed down the list. Since it
was afternoon, I asked for Simron Off, or Smirnoff vodka,
along with a plate of green salad, Rs 18.
While taking the keys, I asked the receptionist to
arrange a taxi for the next morning.
By the time a signboard announced that Khajuraho was
only twenty kilometres away, the cows were already
returning home. Every few kilometres, they would be
lording over the road, sometimes in dozens and sometimes
in hundreds, marching like weary battalions. Their
commander would invariably be a sunburnt, weatherbeaten
old man carrying a twig for a weapon. At one
point, Raju got down from the car to scold the cowherd
and ask him to get the animals out of the way. Any other
day, I would have got down from the car to savour this
most magical hour of a north Indian village: the cow-dust
hour, or godhuli, when the dust raised by the returning
cows mingles, against the setting sun, with the smoke
rising from freshly-kindled mud ovens. But right now, the
sunset irritated me.
Needless to say, when we finally drove into Khajuraho,
the gates to the temple township had just been closed.
The only disappointment was when the receptionist, on being told I was from
Chennai, had to think for several moments before deciding
on the spelling of the city of my residence, which he
finally put on the register as ‘Chine’.
But right now, after a
night’s sleep, I found myself to be the very first visitor of
the day at the thousand-year old temples of Khajuraho.
The sun was yet to light up their spires when I walked
into the compound after buying a ten-rupee ticket.
My first stop was the Laxman temple, simply because it
was closest to the entrance. I climbed up the stone steps
and walked around. In the early-morning silence, the
countless figures on its walls almost spoke. And suddenly,
in the middle of them, is an image of an orgy—the central
figures being a man and a woman who are standing and
have their legs entwined. One leg of the man, however,
has been cut off by the sword of time. I clicked away. As
memento, I also wanted a picture of myself standing below
the erotic panel. I caught hold of a passing gardener—an
old man who was unlikely to have held a camera ever
before. It was kind of him to oblige, but then, each time
he got ready to shoot, the camera would go on the standby
mode, and I had to run to him to put it on. He
managed to take some pictures, but in each of them, the
orgy was left out. Finally, in exasperation, when I
demonstrated to him the angle in which he should hold
the camera, he said with a grandfatherly frown: ‘Oh, you
want to include those statues! You should have said so.’ His
words made me feel like a voyeur caught peeping into a
neighbour’s bedroom. But who cared: it is not every day
that one comes to Khajuraho.
The picture that the old gardener clicked was not bad,
but it clearly reflected that the photographer was more
comfortable holding hedge-pruning scissors than a camera.
I thanked him profusely and let him go about his work.
All this while, a young man had been watching the photo
session from a distance. I beckoned him. He turned out to
be a gardener as well and he was more than willing to take
pictures. Since he could sense what I wanted, I did not
have to beat around the bush while giving him instructions.
Within a matter of seconds I had half a dozen world-class
pictures showing me posing against world-renowned
depictions of sex.
In sheer gratitude, I was about to give him some money
when he said, ‘Come, I will show you something. Come
down this way.’ I followed him down the steps and was
brought to a halt in front of one of the walls of the
podium where, with the flourish of an artist unveiling his
most precious work, he waved his hand, ‘Look here!
Kama Sutra!’ For a moment I was stunned, and the next
moment I felt a little embarrassed, and then I decided to
look at the sculptures as a work of art. But it was
impossible not to think of sex: the acts were taking place
in every conceivable manner, and they were not always
between a man and a woman, or a woman and a woman.
‘Look here, he is doing the horse,’ the young gardener
pointed out. He took more pictures for me and then
excused himself with a namaste.
After I had come to terms with what I just saw, I
strolled over to the other temples: Kandariya, Jagadambi,
Chitragupta and the Vishwanatha. The designs are similar:
each temple erected on a high podium, and has a porch,
a vestibule, a mandap and the sanctum. If time has a smell,
you can smell it in Khajuraho. The air in the darkened
interiors of these temples seems to have remained trapped
ever since a thousand years ago, and standing all alone in
one of the sanctums, it almost feels as if the Chandela
kings had performed an elaborate ritual there just the
I sat on the steps of the Vishwanatha temple for a while
and watched a squirrel breakfasting on a fruit. Suddenly,
there was a whisper from behind: ‘Soovar waala dekhna hai?’
(You want to see the one with the boar?) It was the young
gardener again. I followed him back into the Vishwanatha
temple and on the inner wall above the entrance, I spotted
an image of a boar mounting a woman. He pointed to
another sculpture that was right on the wall of the
sanctum: a man and a woman doing it what they call
‘doggy style’. He did namaste and disappeared again.
By now the sun had risen high and I walked across the
lawn. A group of Westerners had gathered around a
smartly dressed guide and were listening to him intently.
The guide spoke fluent English and from a distance I
could catch certain words: ‘Bestiality’, ‘homosexuality’,
‘vices,’ ‘illusion’ and ‘delusion’. When I got closer, I
realised he was justifying the presence of the erotic
carvings in the temples: ‘When you enter the home of
God, you should get rid of all worldly distractions—that’s
the message of the Khajuraho temples.’ And then, like a
chemistry teacher, he summed up: ‘Lust converts to love,
love converts to devotion, devotion converts to spirituality,
spirituality converts to super consciousness.’ I got the
I came back to the Laxman temple. That’s where all the
action was—on the stones as well as on the ground. Two
Westerners—a man and a woman—came up and I could
see they wanted to burst out laughing on seeing the orgies.
But they wore their trademark practised, dignified smiles
and moved on. An Indian family arrived—two men and
three women. The women, who looked like housewives,
broke into giggles at the sight of the carvings. The men
discussed the dynamics of the complex postures and that
made the women giggle even more. One of them mock admonished
the men: ‘Don’t look at them in a dirty way.
They are works of art.’ One of the men said in mock
shock, ‘Magar yeh to ghode ko chep raha hai!’—But he is
doing the horse! The woman mock-punched him and
they moved on.
Loitering there and watching people reacting in their
own ways to the carvings, I quickly composed a few lines:
Wave your magic wand,
turn us into stones.
So that we get embedded
in the walls of Khajuraho.
We can make love in peace
for another thousand years.
The sun would not flinch at us
neither would the rain,
and no ugly human
to cry, ‘What a shame!’
They would only gape and wonder:
‘Does this pose have a name?’
Who knows, they might come in handy someday.
An elderly Western couple arrived, holding hands. The
carvings made them give each other a quick glance and
they hurried past. Then came a woman—unaccompanied
and Indian. As soon as she saw the images, she pulled out
her camera, but the moment she saw me watching her, she
put the camera back. That’s when I decided to leave.
Outside, a hawker accosted me. He was selling postcards
of the erotic images and pocket-sized Kama Sutra books.
For memory’s sake, I bought one book, titled, what else,
Back in the hotel, I turned its pages. My eyes
fell on the instruction: ‘If a man mixes rice with the eggs of the sparrow and
having boiled this in milk adds to it ghee and honey
and drinks as much of it as necessary, he will be able
to enjoy innumerable women.’
That was some food for thought.
About the author: Bishwanath Ghosh was born in Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, in 1970. He has worked as a journalist with the New Indian Express, The Times of India and The Hindu. This piece is excerpted from his book Chai Chai published by Westland.