Rajasthan Mahotsav Dancer

Week 19 – Couch Surfing into India

30th December 2013 – 6th January 2014

A Chilled Out New Year

After a week of social events, sightseeing and catching up with our friends in Aundh, it was time for us to move on.  Having transferred over to the small but modern apartment of a Pune Couchsurfing host, Aniruddah (Ani), we welcomed a chance for some R&R.

The last two days of 2013 were spent in the apartment, the boys happy to catch up on some cartoons, and mum and dad happy to catch up with a few necessities: blogging, banking, phone recharge, TV, even cooking some pasta!  In the background, our boys’ backpack, stolen at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, had been found, and to the great credit of Bangkok Airways, flown to Mumbai free of charge.  From there they had arranged to forward it to us in Pune, and it duly arrived late in the evening.

Sadly, the thieving scum who had helped themselves to the bag had liberated it of the boys’ much loved Nintendo DS consoles, but the other toys, souvenirs and DVDs remained in it.  It was some consolation.

Our new host, Ani, is a welcoming self starter in his mid-20s – possessed of excellent English and a generous open mind.  He asked only two things of us in return for hosting us:  a lesson each of juggling (one of Prunella’s skills) and of Australian culture.  This we set about.

Celebrations of New Year’s Eve on the road this year were bound to be a quiet.  Lacking any real options for baby-sitters and far from the madding crowds of Pune, we decided to have a night in.  The evening began with an Ani tradition – he arrived home having battled through the NYE traffic with a cake balanced on his bike:  a match was struck and candles were lit to celebrate “all the birthdays we might not get to share”.  A fantastic idea – Happy Birthday to Us – three cheers for all.

So it was with this settled, we joined the typically Indian two deep, five wide queue at the local Domino’s for a pizza or two.  No beers, just a bottle of fizzy pop (this being our most abstemious Silly Season on record).  The boys were asleep even before the midnight fireworks popped and banged across the hillsides, and among the white apartment blocks of this greenfields fringe of the city.

So 2013, the biggest year for us in many, rolled into 2014.  Four months, four countries and a head full of memories  into our big family gap year.

On the Rails Again

The first day of 2014 found us on the road again, or rather, on the rails.  We bid adieu to Ani, and his unique, upbeat perspective on life, and took a taxi for Pune central station. This was it – our induction into the Indian Railway system – beating lifeblood of the country.  Nowhere is more quintessentially Indian than the vicinity of an Indian railway station:  the magnificent colonial architecture; the smell of diesel and piss; the lope of the red-shirted porter, picking his way against the press of people, two 20 kilo backpacks on his head.  Soldiers with ancient rifles stroll past  beggars; businessmen gaze at their smartphones while a wizened fruit seller hawks bananas from a spoke-wheeled handcart.

In our hands the tickets for four berths on a Three-tier Air-con Sleeper (3AC) train, the five-digit train number the key to a night on the rails.  We gained the platform, far across from the station building, clinging to our boys.

The train rolls in, stops exactly where it should, the coach directly adjacent to where the porter has left us with our bags.  He returns, perhaps from another spine-crushing delivery, and hoists the bags onto the train.  We follow him, hand over the agreed rupees, and flop into our seats.  The small space between two stacks of beds becomes our home.  Swapping snacks with our fellow passengers,  the train jerks into motion.

Outside the night darkens, we swing down the middle bunks, install the carefully folded sheets and blankets delivered to us by the coach captain, and settle in.  The train goes quiet, save for the rumble of rails and distant conversations.

In the morning we wake, hundreds of kilometres across India, to the sound of a chai-wallah crying “Chai, Chai, Garam Chai!”  Several tiny cups of the ubiquitous warm, spicy brew gets us going.  An hour or so later, our journey done, we rumble into Nagpur station.

A Huge Helping of Rajasthan

A medium sized Indian city of a casual few million, Nagpur sits at the geographical centre of India, at the far eastern corner of Maharashtra State and we will stay for five days at least, where another Couchsurfer, Deepak, has invited us to participate in Rajasthan Mahotsav, a bi-annual festival celebrating the art, food, music and culture of India’s great western province.  This year, Deepak has been elevated to festival director, and has put out a clarion call for travellers to join in the organisation and colour and sound of the occasion.  Having ourselves sought volunteering opportunities during our stay here, we found common ground.

Deepak has sent another of the festival team to meet us, and so we are conducted to the bustling station forecourt.  Here all of our bags plus all five of us Sabretoothed Chickens are crammed into a single autorickshaw – a feat that seems to defy both the capacity and power of the three-wheeler, and we are driven the two 0r three kilometres to the Civil Lines district, and installed at the spartan but functional MLA Hostel, a government residential block directly opposite the festival zone.

Having settled in and joined in the simple breakfast provided by the hostel canteen, we meet some of the troupe of Rajasthani musicians and dancers who have themselves travelled from the desert state to perform for the people of Nagpur.  They are quiet yet friendly, and welcome us into their presence.

Fronting up at the festival, Prunella is out work supervising the clean up and decoration of the second of two stages, thrust immediately into the role of site manager.  This she takes on with her usual aplomb, ensuring that the work is complete in a few short hours. Deepak is busy with preparations for opening night, and some hours later the lights go up for the first of the performances.  Among the trees, under a sliver of moonlight, the voices of Rajasthan soar into the pink sky.  We fall heavily for their desert songs.

This pattern becomes a daily ritual for the next five nights.  After the pressure of opening night gives way to a steady momentum, we can fully enjoy our time here.  We befriend Sabbai, the teenage singer who opens the occasions with his heartfelt singing, we share stumbling conversations with the turbanned, bespectacled man who gets his wooden puppets to dance for the crowd by night, and carves new and intricate new creations by day.  We learn to sleep in our fourth floor room as a two-brother team of singers chant out a comic ditty, and the music of traditional flute, drum, bagpipe and voice fill the cool air.  We see the dancers with whom we have shared breakfast strut their seductive, skillful moves on the stage.

By day we explore a little of the city:  The Civil Lines District where magnificent Colonial buildings stand testament to the vanished Empire, and see the Zero Mile monument, the datum from where all road distances in India were once reckoned, as it sits crumbling in the middle of a busy intersection.  Here is a small restaurant that sells tasty dosa, there is a park where people stroll among neat gardens and a Hawker Hunter jet soars on a pole while a fibreglass T-Rex guards the entrance.

Nagpur is not small, but it is off the tourist trail, and somehow, we start to sync with the rhythm of the place.   It is a proud city – it’s citizens remark that it is host to one of three annual session of the state congress (the others being held in Mumbai), and Deepak reminds us that it has played host to international cricket matches, including a test or two, and a recent epic one-day victory to India chasing down a staggering 350 set by Australia.  Cricket is never far from the minds of Indian people.

The final night of the Festival arrives on the 6th, and despite our modest contribution, we are welcomed onto the stage as feted guests.  Graham is directed to where a lavishly bearded gentleman firmly winds turbans onto guests’ heads, we are shown seats in the front row among local VIPs, and Prunella’s face appears in the local press.  It is nothing short of a real honour to be included by all who have brought Rajasthan Mahotsav together, especially Kuldeep, the quietly spoken manager of the artists, and Deepak who’s warmth and encouragement leave us feeling that, unlike that cricket game months ago, both India and us Australians have won something here.


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