I arrive Pune at about noon after a long bus ride from Aurangabad. There are frequent buses connecting these two cities. I boarded the 6.00 am bus which left Aurangabad half an hour late. Apparently the bus conductor had overslept.
As usual, the first priority is to find a room. I check out a couple of places near the Shivaji Nagar bus station. Truly terrible looking buildings in appalling surroundings. The rent of Rs. 800 a night is too steep for me. I enquire someone.
‘Seven or eight hundred is normal in Pune. You won’t find anything cheaper,’ he says much to my disappointment.
Without any guidebook for reference or prior research on Pune, I am not going to find cheaper accommodation. I decide to spend a few hours and move on to my next destination. I walk to Shaniwar Wada, palace ruins of the Peshwas. A defensive wall stands with its intimidating main door with iron spikes all over it. The real defence today to the palace grounds is a constant stream of traffic around it. It takes me a good ten minutes to cross the road.
‘You have to get a ticket,’ orders a guard just inside the main door.
‘What’s there to see on the inside? Are they any palace buildings?’ I ask in return.
‘There are no buildings inside today. They were lost in a fire.’
I start walking out. ‘There is a garden,’ he calls after me but I am already out of the door.
‘The guard is a fucking cheat,’ says Vinod, a farmer who is sitting idly in front of the palace entrance.
‘How so?’ I ask with interest.
‘He won’t tear off the tickets from visitors. He will simply collect them. He colludes with the guy at the counter to recycle the tickets.’
‘How much does he make this way?’
‘These guys will sell 500 tickets but show only 50 ticket sales. It’s so difficult to find honest people these days.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I do all sorts of odd jobs. I just sold my stock of harabara this morning. I bought them at Rs. 3 a bundle at my village and sold them here for Rs. 5. I have made a profit of Rs. 90.’
‘Is that enough for you?’
‘I don’t believe in earning more than what I need. You see that woman?’ he says pointing to a vendor further down the path. I nod.
‘She’s trying to sell 100 bundles. It will take her all day long. I sold 50 bundles this morning and prefer to relax in the afternoon.’
‘Do you like the palace?’ I ask pointing to the Dilli Darwaza. The crowds are coming in and out of the small doorway.
‘I come here often to relax. Twenty years ago there was no park here. Things have changed today.
‘This life is a four-day festival (char din ki mela),’ he continues and starts off on a lengthy monologue on his personal philosophy of life and living.
‘Do you know how I can get to Aga Khan Palace?’ I ask to change the topic.
‘I live next to it. You can take a bus from across the river,’ he says. I noticed this river earlier as I crossed it over a bridge. It is polluted so badly that it is downright repulsive. It may be the sole reason why I don’t like Pune. It is strange how a part can personify the whole and how one impressive can stand proxy to influence many others.
Aga Khan Palace is where Gandhi was imprisoned during the Quit India Movement. It is where Kasturba died. I have also read that the buildings have interesting architecture.
‘Why do you want to go there? The buildings are not interesting – just a few walls and arches,’ said Vinod while tracing with his fingers three semi-circular arches on an airy canvas.
Well, that’s about the only excuse I needed to make an early exit from Pune and move to Lonavla. I enter the palace anyway after recommendation from Vinod. I make sure the guard tears my ticket. Inside, only stone foundations remain. A couple of pools in floral outlines stand dried. Lovers lounge on the lawns.
I stop at a nice restaurant near Shaniwar Wada for a Punjabi thali meal. While in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, unlimited meals are common, they are not so common in Maharashtra, at least not in posh restaurants. Limited meals are common, normally with only two tandoori rotis. They will ask you if you would like more rotis and will charge you for them separately.
I walk back to Shivaji Nagar. As I cross the river by the bridge, a man approaches me.
‘Kaan dekao (show me your ear),’ he says and follows me with a stencil and some cotton buds. Strapped at his waist is a box with an assortment of similar stuff.
If I had been a little naive I might have given him my ear. I start walking faster. He follows me with persistence and determination in his step.
‘No,’ I say and almost start laughing at this spectable. I imagine seeing this spectacle as a third person – an ear cleaner with implements in hand running after the ear of a backpacker on a bridge. Such ear cleaners are so common in Mumbai but now I know that they can be found in Pune as well.
At Shivaji Nagar I wait for the train to Lonavla. When it arrives, I barge into a crowded compartment, notwithstanding the loud protests from women sitting at the entrance.