‘Who’re you?’ I asked. This kid had appeared suddenly from nowhere and was smiling impishly.
He said, ‘Swami. My grandmother calls me Sami.’
‘Hey! Aren’t you pretending to be that character from Malgudi Days?’ I ask, suddenly remembering that book I had read decades ago, ‘And if you really are that Swami, you’d know where Rajam and Mani are. Right? But anyway, what are you doing here?’
‘I was told that you and I will travel to Malgudi,’ said the impish looking boy who identified himself as Swami.
‘Ok,’ I said, ‘and how will this happen? Magically? Ha! Ha! No reservations. No travel bookings. No planning. You can’t be serious.’
‘We begin by closing our eyes!’ said Swami as if this was as simple as ordering a dosa.
And so began my surreal travel to Malgudi. I have pinched myself a hundred times throughout those travel hours half-expecting to wake up and find myself on my bed in my home in Delhi… but no, we were in Malgudi and the coffee aroma was as real as it could be. I walked out of the open door and found myself on Vinayak Street and saw a horse-pulled jutka coming my way. I stopped it and asked, ‘How much for a ride?’
‘Eight annas only, saar!’
‘What?’ I thought, ‘I am definitely not in a city that exists. Eight annas for a ride? This can’t be true.’ I hopped on the jutka and we went all over that small town that had more small eateries selling dosas and coffee than I had ever seen. There was one where a man sat outside playing a veena… and then there were temples that looked quite similar to the ones I had seen when I had travelled from Bengaluru to Kabini and Nagarhole via Mysuru. But the most surprising sightings were not tigers on the nearly deserted streets on that sultry afternoon but the boardless hotel right next to a reading room and with a treadle printing press a couple of village houses away. It was here that I saw Swami standing with two boys.
‘Where were you?’ I asked, ‘and more importantly where am I? I mean where are we? Yes, Malgudi has been a travel inspiration no doubt, but this is more like exploring the world of my imagination.’
‘Malgudi’, he said, and waving a hand towards the two boys, ‘Rajam and Mani. You wanted to meet them, right?
‘Hello Rajam. Hello Mani,’ I say and before I can think of asking anything else, they speak up together. ‘Let us take a walk by the Sarayu.’
‘Why not?’ And so we walked by the tranquil river for a while laughing at the ripples created by little pebbles that Sami and his friends threw in. The sun was brighter than usual that fine day and as we approached a small bridge I heard the purr of a car. ‘That must be Gaffur,’ said Rajam excitedly, ‘he always has a new story ready for us.’
Soon enough Gaffur’s taxi reached where we were just besides the road with a few coconut trees swaying benevolently. He stopped his taxi that was quite literally nothing like the Uber and Ola cabs that I was so accustomed to, and coming out he said, ‘Swami, have you heard what happened to Sampath today?’
‘No,’ said Swami, ‘tell us but let us sit in your taxi for some time first. It is hot today and my mind isn’t the same as I always thought it was.’
‘Ha! Ha!’ remarked Sampath, ‘But there is this peculiarity about heat: it appears to affect only those that think of it. Not my words but this is what my creator R K Narayan wrote when he wrote about me.’
And then Gaffur went on to tell us about the time Sampath, the printer visited the ‘adjournment lawyer’. ‘And poor Sampath had to walk up a ladder get to this lawyer’s office. We all know this ladder is from the cotton carder’s room and the air is always full of cotton dust.’
‘Let me guess what happened, Gaffur,’ shouted Rajam, and then without waiting for his consent he went on, ‘Sampath must have had his eyes and ears full of cotton dust. Ha! Ha! Must have been funny.’
‘Well, not just this,’ said Gaffur, ‘He had quite a bit of fluff in his mouth as well and could not speak a single word clearly. So the lawyer asked him to go back and come again some other day when he was less drunk with fluff.’
I was finding all this quite interesting because I had read a few of the stories and remembered a few that had titles like The Missing Mail, The Doctor’s word, The blind dog, Such Perfection, Engine Trouble, Forty-Five a month, The Axe, Lawley Road, A willing Slave, Leela’s Friend, Mother & Son, Selvi, Second Opinion. So I asked, ‘Has the postman finally started delivering even bad mail now? I mean, the good-natured guy never wanted to see tears in anyone’s eyes until he had married off his daughter, you know.’
Gaffur stared at me and said, ‘You know this story. You are as good a Malgudi person as we all are, right, Swami? Come on now, I will ferry you three to the railway station because it is time for the 7-Down to be chugging in.’ So we all went to the sleepy railway station that had just two trains, one coming and one going. As expected, I smiled when I saw the banyan tree on a small platform and a mongrel staring at something distant on the tracks.
‘What is that dog doing?’ I asked.
‘Nothing. He just loves barking at the train when it comes in,’ said Mani, ‘and stops when passengers step out. You see, he is a good dog and doesn’t want people to go back with a bad impression about Malgudi.’
‘Hey! Do you know this place is as real as the it was in my imagination until now,’ I said, ‘And it is so much like Yoknapatawpha County that William Faulkner created for his stories.’
‘Yolk? What yolk?’ asked Gaffur, ‘There is a seller here I know who sells boiled eggs. I’ll get some if you are hungry.’
‘No, no,’ I hurriedly said, ‘I was just mumbling something from a different world. We are not hungry yet. But I must say that this is so far a rather enriching experience for me. A literary microcosm, if I may add, that has popped out from my imagination with me right in the centre of all activity.’
I saw from the corners of my eyes that Gaffur was indicating discretely to Swami and his friends that I was probably another crackpot tourist who found Malgudi too good for his travel experiences… and when he saw me looking at him, he hastily added, ‘The heat can do anything, you see Swami, and our friend here is probably full of stories that we have been telling him all this while.’
‘Ah!’ I said, ‘you mean something similar to what Narayan wrote in his story about a tiger in Malgudi?’
‘You know that story too?’ said Swami, and then after a pause, ‘and what did this Narayan fellow write?’
I told him that the writer in one of his thirty-two stories on Malgudi, had written that ‘knowledge, like food, must be taken within limits. You must know only as much as you need, and not more.’
‘Seems like God’s words,’ said Gaffur, and he folded his hands in reverence, ‘and true. Nothing bad has happened to you as you said what you said. You remember the time, Swami, when our doctor’s friend spent days fighting a bad disease because he had spoken a lie?’
‘Yes, I remember the disease almost killed him. Some funny name for that disease and I don’t think recollecting the name would do anyone any good. But it happened because he lied.’
It is funny how some or the other story had this habit of sneaking up and entering everything we talked about. But then stories are strong in their intuition and know many paths and are never lost. They always find the right time to reach the right person, don’t they? And talking of lies leading to diseases, R K Narayan had written somewhere in some story that if you ‘threw a stone into a gutter it would only spurt filth in your face.’
As not a single passenger decided to hire Gaffur’s taxi that day, we had the double whammy of a ride back to the small town and even for a brief stop at a playfield where the MCC or the Malgudi Cricket Club boys were running from one end to the other.
‘That’s the cricket team,’ said Swami.
‘But why aren’t they playing cricket?’ I asked.
‘I think the headmaster is in a bad mood,’ said Swami, ‘it is a Sunday and he must be missing his afternoon nap.’
‘Headmaster? Why must the headmaster be here?’
‘He is the coach too.’
I then decided to ask Swami and his friends a few question. The first one was about the temples. I asked, ‘What do you think the Gods in these temples really do?’
Swami paused for a while and said, ‘They just stay inside and must be thanking their Gods… because if they came out, they may have to attend school.’
Gaffur clapped his hands at this answer and added, ‘But the “gods can grow jealous of too much contentment anywhere, and they show their displeasure all of a sudden”. So we also visit them sometimes so they don’t feel lonely.’
‘What do you think of travel?’ I asked Gaffur.
‘Nothing. Travel doesn’t bother me. I just have to make sure that I don’t sleep while I am driving,’ he said with a chuckle. Rajam raised his right hand timidly.
‘Yes, Rajam, you want to say something?’
‘Yes. We have seen planes high in the sky sometimes. But they never come down here in Malgudi. Why?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘maybe because there is no airport here.’
‘So how can we get one?’ asked Swami. Gaffur too was interested but muttered, ‘Wait. Will this mean that people will then take a plane from the station to the town? This makes me nervous.’ Everyone laughed and Swami told Gaffur to relax because planes were for travel to far away cities and countries. ‘You know, I have an Uncle who comes from Madras by train. He said that he first reaches Madras in a plane from Bombay and then takes the 7-Down.’
‘You’ve got it right,’ I said, ‘and yes, there must be an airport here in Malgudi. I will write a story and talk about this. Maybe someone will read and listen to my appeal.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Gaffur who was now relaxed because planes were not competing with his taxi, ‘may the prime minister read your story. Nehru ji is a nice man. He will listen.’
‘He was our prime minister a long time ago,’ I said, ‘but you’re right, someone will certainly listen and get Malgudi its airport.’ I then paused and went on, ‘And I’m sure Lufthansa will schedule one flight through this town.’
Mani, who had listened silently for so long, suddenly spoke up, ‘Lufthansa. I like this word. Sounds so German and so Indian.’
I smiled, ‘Well, this airline does #SayYesToTheWorld.’
This was when I closed my eyes not knowing that this would be a sign to transport me back to my time, my world, and that bench in the park in Connaught Place in Delhi. I was back in no time but with a realization that exploration wasn’t a word with limitations of time. I nodded my head and muttered, ‘A bucket list is fine but I must say that #TheBlindList is any day better.’ After all, life is about making up the right things and going on…
10 October 2018
#BucketList #Openminded #EnrichingExperience #Exploration #TravelInspiration #ExploringTheWorld #TravelToExplore #SelfExploration #Malgudi #RKNarayan #ImaginaryTravel #Lufthansa #SayYesToTheWorld #TheBlindList #MalgudiDays #Fiction