Journeys are often more interesting than destinations, but not when you are travelling alone. Long journeys are worse and the only thing to fill the slow hours is sleep. There is only so much you can sleep during the day. There comes a point when even sleep is not rest but restlessness. In these moments, even ordinary acts of your fellow travellers take on interpretations and meanings that would not have been otherwise possible.
Take for example the simple act of having a meal. It appears that North Indians cannot have a satisfying meal without a raw onion. So a raw onion is expectedly fished out of a bag, peeled and chopped in the moving train. Puffed rice is then mixed with sauce, tamarind juice or even egg curry along with the chopped onions. This is thus a tasty addition to a normal meal of roti, sabji and pickle.
I am in the Yeswantpur-Hatia Express. These used to be days when train meals would be delivered in steel plates with many partitions. The plates would be stacked one on top of another. The food used to be uncovered. These days things have improved. Elegant plastic trays have replaced steel plates. Food is packed and served warm in separate containers that are sealed with aluminium foils. Maybe I should try it next time. For today I settle for homemade polis and methi rotis. A poli is a South Indian dish like a kulcha except that it is stuffed with coconut. For those not preferring sweet items, there is also a poli with daal fillings.
There are transvestites who make their rounds through the train compartments. They know exactly where and when tickets are checked. So they travel without tickets. They announce themselves with their claps. Each clap sound more persistent than the one before. Men are sitting in their seats quietly, each one thinking, ‘Oh God please, not me!’
But then they are approached and demanded to pay up. Those who dare not to cooperate are verbally assaulted. There is no telling what will happen if the demanded sum is still not produced. They will not be contented with anything less than ten rupees. As for me, I lie still in the upper berth pretending to be asleep. But others sitting below are scolded, abused and coerced into paying up more than once.
I arrive at Vizianagaram, often pronounced as Vijayanagaram, at quarter to six after a decent sleep on the train. By six I am at the bus station. The first bus to Jagdalpur, I am told at the enquiry counter, is at half past seven. I wait and wait and wait. The sun comes up. The quiet station gets busy. Buses keep coming and going, almost every minute. Except mine. I am now losing my patience. It is half past eight. I enquire again at the counter.
‘I have no idea about the bus. It is Orissa bus. Supposed to come at half seven.’
‘Is there any A.P. bus?’
‘There is one to Jeypore at quarter past ten.’
There is nothing better than certainty in an uncertain world. Instead of waiting wastefully for the Jagdalpur bus, I decide to go by the Jeypore bus and change at Jeypore for Jagdalpur. I head out to town and stop at a nice restaurant for breakfast. Hot idlis are served. They are fluffy and soft. Sambar is tasty. The chutney is wonderfully thick and made of fresh coconut. The coffee is sweetened to perfection. Once I leave Andhra Pradesh, I know that a South Indian preparation of this quality would be rare to find for the rest of my trip.
By chance I see a list of tourist sites in town on a poster. I walk to one of them, the Clock Tower. It is an octagonal tower in five levels with simple pointed arches over windows and niches. At the top is a level of crenellation. The brickword is patterned in typical English style of East Anglia except that it is not of black flintstones in its unique flushwork. It must have been built during the British Raj. The clocks on the tower tell the time correctly, something new for such an old monument. But the common man who is used to accosting people for time will continue to do so.
‘Look above,’ I tell a fruit-seller at tower. He must be new to town or does not know how to read time.
A policeman stops me. Apparently he has seen me snap a few pictures of the tower. I tell him I am a tourist from Bangalore. Nothing to worry. I understand a bit of his Telugu. He assume he understands a bit of my Hindi. The English word ‘tourist’ settles whatever doubts he has on his mind.
A little distance from the Clock Tower is a fort. The moat, the walls, bastions and the entrance gateway at the moat bridge are beautiful remains of an age long gone. I see lots of school and college students entering by the wicket door under the gateway. Inside are schools, colleges, hostels and houses. Some of the school buildings are dilapidated, the desks still in place but covered with many fine layers of dust. It is a sad fate for a historic place. The entire fort complex could be developed for tourism if not used rightly for education.
At Vizianagaram I spot many tribals, generally vendors selling stuff – flowers, fruits, vegetables. In my short walk of just an hour I passed three tribal women smoking cheroots, an Indian cigar. These are strong stuff but these tribal women are hardy folks.
Back at the bus station, I see a handful of country folk still waiting for the Jagdalpur bus. They have been waiting since half past six this morning. Finally they board the Jeypore bus along with me. When we finally leave Vizianagaram, it is half past ten.