October 29, 2009

In his arms

Our first night on a recent roadtrip, we had planned to spend in Khandwa. On the map, it looked like a tough but doable drive from Bombay, on reasonable roads. But as afternoon turned to evening and the sun sank lower, it became clear that we would not make it before dark, and in fact not before driving in darkness for a few hours. So we started hunting for somewhere to stay, suitable for our two-kid situation.

In the messy town of Edalabad, we asked a paanwala if he knew of a place for the night. He pointed behind him, to a strange red and blue structure whose most prominent signage read "Bar and Permit Room". The two kids with me, I walked in.

It might have been the first time the patrons of this establishment had seen a father and two small children approaching the counter, and that might have been why we got several bewildered looks from the numerous tables. Still, the boss-man was unperturbed. "Of course we have rooms," he said, and directed one of his staff to show them to us. This man handed us off to another, telling him to show us their "bilkul A-1 first-class best kamre" (that's verbatim, and my loose translation is "rooms").

He must have been winking.

We took the stairs, the walls a uniform red from years (days? weeks? months?) of forcefully applied paan. The first floor had a large room with several dingy-looking curtained cubicles. I could imagine, though I didn't much feel like explaining to our 5- and 10-year-olds, what went on there. We climbed past them, past more walls painted that delectable red. On the second floor, an aroma greeted us that I can only describe as a charming combo of urine and vomit. There wasn't time to find out where it came from, because the man led us through it and out onto a narrow balcony. Several rooms opened off it, and he showed us one.

Let me just say this much about this room: you look up the word "dingy" in any given dictionary, and it will say this -- "A word that describes the rooms two floors above a particular bar in Edalabad, Maharashtra."

Had I been alone and desperate, I might have just forked over the Rs 300 for this "bilkul A-1 first-class best" room. With my family, no way.

So we drove another 45km in darkness. Spent the night in the VIP room of a charming 100-year-old government rest house in Burhanpur, MP. A few cockroaches and just one towel and no toilet seat -- the VIP treatment that I've had before, apparently -- but otherwise clean and comfortable. Rs 260, and it was even air-conditioned.


Incidentally, Edalabad has two claims to fame. (Well, maybe three, if you count the establishment I've just told you about).

One is that our honourable President, Pratibha Patil, used to represent the place in the Maharashtra Assembly.

The second is connected with the fact that its name is actually no longer Edalabad, but Muktainagar. This is after Muktai, sister of the great 13th Century Marathi poet-philosopher-saint Dnyaneshwar. The town apparently has a couple of temples devoted to Muktai.

The story of Muktai's death not far from the town is a sad and moving one. In one version, she and her eldest brother Nivrutti were on a Tapi River pilgrimage, and she became ill and weak. He carried her and kept walking. He did not realize that she had died in his arms.

In Maharashtra, there's a whole political industry built up around reverence for Shivaji. I wonder how much those people know about Nivrutti, Dnyaneshwar, Sopan and Muktai. Perhaps there's no great political capital to be made out of paying attention to their lives. But they remain an intrinsic part of the culture of these parts, and their teachings an inspiration to anyone.

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