Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha were young professionals living in the heart of Delhi, holding down decent nine-to-five jobs, when the idea of a transformational journey through India suddenly struck them. The Heat and Dust Project is an account of that journey, undertaken on a shoestring budget.
We were global and opinionated. We were conscious of what we had earned. A few of us could pull off the sharpest of short skirts. Others might invent the most stinging of put-downs. Several loathed their bosses, a small number ran popular blogs on company time, all took particular preferences seriously: pepperoni with no mushrooms meant no mushrooms, okay? A few clung on to the 1970s’ ideas of love and marriage. But the rest of us pitied them deeply. We were that generation.
Our successes too were built on the foundations of a few words losing their meaning altogether; bleeding out to become cold curiosities like five-paise coins and pagers. Consider lakhpati. When we were children, lakhpati was such a sparkly word, glamorous and debilitating all at once; it was powerful in our mouths, expanding between tongue and palate to mean cars and factories and garish drawing rooms filled with large marble vases. Lakhpati was Juhi Chawla’s father in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.
By the time we entered our twenties, those of us who went to top B-schools became lakhpatis in the first month of our jobs. Those of us who studied the arts and social sciences, and remained at university to pile on degrees, obtained an arch tone about this lot. Some of us who studied medicine and spent our twenties in protracted agony punctuated by raucous boozy pharma parties and impossible examinations merely glowered. But we would have our day in the sun. If we became surgeons and joined those private hospitals which looked like malls, we’d get a lakh per operation. We could do about six operations a day by the time we were in our mid-forties though our spouses might complain about the frequency of sex.
The culture guys call us the children of globalization. But really, we were lip service givers to global warming. Globalization meant global warming, but we could not do without our globalization. We paid more for our bras and floaters than our parents had earned in their very first jobs. We whittled our profound anxieties down to perfect apps that kept our fingers twitching all day, and to blue anterooms of the mind by night, where nightmares battled with furniture wish lists.
Sometimes we would wake up in panic at 3 am. But on the whole, we were reasonably sure we would survive. The house with the three bedrooms and the heated swimming pool downstairs at the clubhouse would be ours; on the honeymoon in Mauritius, champagne would gleam in cold flutes by the window. We would spend our lives pursuing happiness since the American Constitution had asked us to.
And then there were the younger or more fortunate among us, whose parents too had ridden the liberalization boom. Sometimes we let them take us to fancy restaurants. When the cheque arrived, we saw how the ageing skin beneath their eyes registered the mildest of flickers. Though naturally they had come prepared. They knew what fine dining meant. They were learning the ropes. Their fingers would rub sharply at the friction generated by the crisp thousand-rupee notes. It was still so new to them, this Indian plenty. We observed, and in all our love and protectiveness, were a little pitying in our hearts. We spent thousands far more casually. In any case, what is a thousand? Film and popcorn over the weekend.
Foreign travel—whether on company money or on academic grants (for many of us still believed in the West)—made us smooth. We learnt to distinguish between types of beer and complain about airlines. We saw white people begging and felt vaguely embarrassed.
The real innovators among us, though, the ones who truly pushed us into a new age, were those who brought to cleverness that sense of democracy. The cleverness of old boys’ clubs—beginning in posh boarding schools, honed at old-money universities in England, and then served up with bitters in clubs—was old hat. It didn’t matter where we came from any more; or if we were women.
We would read The Guardian, follow Manhattan’s hippest blogs. We would learn the language. It only mattered how quickly we caught on. But then again, balance was important and we negotiated tightropes. Too much cleverness, and you became a cynic; too little, and no one would retweet you ever.
We were so glorious and so connected, it never really felt that in a nation of a billion, we were so very few. And so we forgot that if practised in appropriate amounts for too long, cleverness could take the place of life……
It is afternoon and we are sitting in a bus bound for Jaisalmer. We were the first ones to buy tickets mid-morning—along with an old Muslim couple—and so we have been allotted seats in front. I am by the window. S is trying to sleep. He rests his head on the iron railing in front, and later, long after the incident, after we have reached Jaisalmer and found a hotel and eaten dinner, at night I will smell the sour iron smell on his forehead and wake up in panic. The old couple are sitting behind us. They are going to Pokhran.
Last night, my cousin R arrived at eleven. It was so cold that his breath misted in the air when he spoke. He brought an extravagant offering. The pastry chef at the Taj had handcrafted these gourmet chocolate affairs for us. Gigantic slices of a multilayered cake, lined with generous layers of chocolate ganache, steeped in syrup, and topped with a dark chocolate slab. Arranged artfully on each of the four rectangles were a strawberry, a cherry and a milk chocolate cigar. Individually, they were certainly worth more than the room rent.
We shared one last night, squabbling like children over the strawberry and the cherry. And now, the remaining three in their cardboard box sit delicately in a thin cloth bag on my lap, along with my jacket and cap. It’s quite hot in the bus. My handbag is stuffed in the sliver of space between the two of us, along with a fair amount of annoyance. These seats have been designed for midgets. In the canvas bag, we are carrying a jacket that another guest, an Australian, had forgotten in his room at Cosy. We have his number, he has ours; he’ll pick it up from us at the bus station in Jaisalmer. Our rucksacks are crammed into the spindly racks above.
The bus is already very full. But people are still buying tickets and bustling in, though there are no seats left, flush with that resolute Indian hope for adjustment. Mostly it’s men in pagris who tumble to the back and slither into spots where there is something to hold on to, hoping to get seats later. The engine thrums, that hefty asthmatic sighing, and we have been ready to leave any moment now for the last half hour.
In a last-minute scramble a bunch of women climb in, trailed by children. They are all reed-thin and the women wear colourful synthetic skirts with bright dupattas wound around their torsos and covering their heads. The little girls wear frocks and scuffed sweaters. They have several sacks with them and the conductor heaves these in.
There is no place for these sacks to be stowed, so they are left to sit, all misshapen and lumpy, fruits and vegetables popping out, in the aisle. The women and children scatter, a few squatting on the floor of the bus. At some point, trouble begins. One passenger points to a sack and says something. Immediately, two other passengers chime in. The conductor takes it up. “Kathal? Kathal?” he asks, looking this way and that. Jackfruit. One of the sacks is stuffed with jackfruit. Commotion ensues.
In many parts of India (including Bengal) there is this notion that one should never, like never ever, carry any of the following on journeys: jackfruit, pickles or very ripe bananas. The no-no lists often have minor cultural variations, but jackfruit, it seems, is a common factor. Or bad things will happen. My mother, that very sensible science-minded person, has her own reasons for believing this. A year or so into their marriage, my dad and she were once going to attend a wedding in Asansol. On the Howrah Bridge, their taxi broke down.
They ran all the way to the platform only to see the train leaving in front of their eyes. Fighting with each other over the apportioning of blame (this bit I assume), they returned home. Later they realized that the sealed brown package they were supposed to deliver to someone in Asansol (my dad is a great one for volunteering for such things) had contained jars of pickled jackfruit. At this point in the story, my mother’s voice would rise an octave or two. “You know how we found this out? The oil from the aachaar leaked through and ruined all my best saris which I was taking to the wedding!’
Years later, I gathered the reasoning behind this odd no-no from Robert Svoboda’s Aghora. Apparently, the only sense spirits employ is that of smell—the reason why across cultures incense is employed to show respect to ancestors or household gods and goddesses. Now, overripe jackfruit and bananas and strong oily pickles have a fecund musk that attract spirits—mostly naughty ones at that—to themselves. And with naughty spirits at play, cacophony ensues. Bad things might happen.
S is roused and looks around sleepily. We assume that after all the chattering in Rajasthani, of which we understand only a few words, the bus will begin to move. But matters quickly deteriorate. The conductor, goaded by several passengers, is asking the girl to reconsider. To leave behind her jackfruit. The girl in the pink dupatta, whose jackfruit it is, naturally begins to protest. She shrieks shrilly.
And then, from somewhere in the middle of the bus, a young man rises and begins to fume. He is short and belongs probably to the newly citified, newly prosperous classes, all faux-leather jacket and Salman Khan haircut. Sure enough, he comes forward, claims he’s in the police, and kicks the sack of jackfruit. It skids. The girl in the pink dupatta rushes forward to protect her sack, and then the chap raises his hand.
In a second, fog descends on my brain. A lone flare, red and acid, begins to singe the thin skin of my palms and armpits at being thrust, woefully unprepared, into the sort of incident that happens to other people: riots and muggings and molestations.
But S is already there, exactly in the middle, between the man and the girl and, shamefully, very shamefully (for I have been schooled in feminism from an early age and it should have been me in the middle), I feel thankful that he is big like a bear and that odious man, police or not, will not stand a chance.
But (much as he would have liked to, one suspects) S does not need to fight. As suddenly as this matter had flared up, it gets defused. The policeman(?) draws back immediately and returns to his seat. He sits down next to an old lady. He continues to roar though. I give the girl my water bottle and assure her that we will join her in protecting her jackfruit till the very end.
The old woman behind us pipes in with her support. Her husband, his dentures juddering slightly, agrees. She drinks some water and then continues to tell me her story in Rajasthani, beginning probably at the moment the jackfruit tree had been planted in her village. The man who had raised his hand to strike her is reciting angrily to the people clustered around him the influential positions his friends occupy in local, state and finally, the Central government.
S tells the conductor that he understands the feelings of the other passengers. But the fact is that jackfruits do travel from villages where they are grown to cities where they are sold.
People must have transported them, no? The conductor nods matter-of-factly though a few passengers in front still grumble. They are not against the girl, the conductor translates in Hindi, not at all, but they are against the jackfruit. But it is her property, S reasons patiently, while I bristle in my seat. Finally, he says to the conductor, now sitting down, there are so many of us. Right? Even if there is any trouble, it will get equally divided into so many parts, that what befalls us individually is sure to be minimal. “That is right,” says the conductor, now shaking his head in assent, “that is how these things are,” and after he confers with the driver, the bus begins to move.
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