Silence in the places of men

Chasing what keeps people quiet.

Heading for Karnataka's famous Jog Falls on National Highway 206, we make an early start out of Shimoga. The town looks like a war zone, because entire stretches of buildings and shopfronts have been demolished. We had seen such carnage in Chikmagalur too, a few days earlier. Why? Of all things, to widen the highway. Homage to the ravenous automobile god, of course. But not calculated to make us feel positively inclined about Shimoga.

Even if I am in a car, I think as we drive past the destruction, I would welcome a little hardship in driving – narrow roads, traffic – if that preserves the character of a town. Yet it never happens that way. Obsessed as we are with wheels, the car's needs always dictate how a city develops. Flyovers, highways, parking lots and, but of course, the destruction of whole sections of towns.

Then I remind myself: I am not on this trip to draw dismal conclusions about the direction of my country, I want to have a good time. Why am I noting mundane things like roads being widened?

It is a thought I will revisit.

Meanwhile, on the way out of Shimoga we pass several fruit vendors, apples and luscious jackfruits arranged in careful pyramids, gleaming yellow mosambis a match for the passing autorickshaws. We notice them, a little wistfully, because thoughts of the ravenous automobile god have reminded us how hungry we are, and getting hungrier by the minute. Dinner last night had been a disaster. This morning nothing is yet open that looks inviting enough for breakfast.

But this morning, even good-looking fruit won't do. Real food it must be, the hotter and more steaming the better, and quickly.

Exactly an hour later, now nearly ready to eat the bark off the trees whizzing past, we shoot at top speed through a hamlet. Red earth to our left, red earth to our right, swarms of kids in red school uniforms, roosters stalking about, cows munching on this and that unmentionable, a board that says both Dothies for sale!  and Megha hit movie! And, thank you, no demolitions.

We are about to shoot all the way through what we later learn is Choradi, but something intangible about the feel of this place – that board might have clinched it – makes us slow down. That is when we see it: an eatery of sorts, by name Hotel Vinay. And it is open. And it looks inviting, though possibly our judgement is swayed by hunger.

We park across the highway, mainly because a placid cow has parked herself in front of Hotel Vinay. We walk over and enter. About 10 tables in all, placed close together in a small room. Bright green wall to the left, orange-pink wall in front, fragrant orange flowers hanging in the doorway: quite the psychedelic decor scheme. Only a couple of other customers present. We choose the corner table to our right, which we have to approach by walking right to the back, along the wall, and then forward towards the front. Establishment tour done, we sit.

Within seconds, two things happen. Someone plonks a steel pitcher of water down before us, and other breakfasters begin pouring in. Within minutes, every table is taken and there are people waiting outside. It is as if we were the cue, as if they had been waiting for us to enter. But from where have all these men – my wife and six-year-old are the only females here –turned up? Where were they hiding, as they waited for our cue?

No answers, of course. Meanwhile, there is only one item of food to be had: idli-sambar. We order from a man with a checked towel over his shoulder. While we wait, we look around at our fellow breakfasters. To my left, a man in shorts, vest and another checked towel around his neck is already sipping hot coffee from a small steel tumbler, chatting animatedly with his pals, the vapour from the coffee enveloping his face and hands. At another table, someone is reading a Kannada newspaper aloud, but only loud enough for his table-chums to hear. Spoons clink, people laugh, there is a buzz of animated conversation.

Just the usual, I imagine, in a cramped place like this.

Then, in a small fog of vapour and sambar aroma, our idlis arrive. In ravenous anticipation, my stomach growls. I pick one up. I dip it in the chutney, then the steaming sambar. I bite into it. My tongue nearly falls off.

I mean that. The concoction is exactly that spicy, that hot, that aromatic. The flavours waltz around my mouth, squeezing into every sensory cell I possess, suffusing my entire brain, maybe my entire being. No, I don't exaggerate at all. I am gasping at the sharp spice, yet I am really in raptures. I can taste the coconut in the chutney, the eggplant and drumsticks and the cocktail of spices in the sambar, the light freshness of the idli – and somehow it all comes together, perfect, and it fills and thrills my senses.

Is this real? At the best of times I pay minimal attention to food, yet here I am, bowled over by, of all mundane things, idli-sambar. But this idli-sambar is extraordinary, for the gods. Are we really in a nondescript eating establishment in an ordinary village on an average highway, with a placid cow chewing outside? Should I pinch myself to be sure? I don't need to. As we eat, as the others are served their plates of idli too, a hush blankets the room. From our always chatty kids to all the men: silence everywhere.

I know why: you cannot simultaneously talk and savour breakfast this exquisitely full of flavour. The silence tells a story.

When I am done with my first mouthful, I have just one thought: I want more. When I am done with the plate, I still have just one thought: I want more. Nothing else matters, nothing else intrudes on my single-minded idli-wolfing. But eventually I have to stop, if only because we have to get on the road. I mean, it is an effort to refocus: Jog Falls, here we come. Don't mind if we're waddling a bit, ok?

Choradi, where idli-sambar silenced a room full of men. And our six-year-old.

Follow the teer

It would be just another story from the road, that Choradi breakfast. I could add to it, too. The 'meals ready' four of us ate in Kannur once: rice, sambar, two vegetables, pickles and a piece of fish each. Bill, 38 rupees – total. The edge-of-the-world feel of dreamy Laitkynsew in Meghalaya, where we flew paper planes off the hilltop, into Bangladesh sprawled hundreds of feet below. The time a large family gathered in the restaurant where we were dining, a birthday party for one of the boys. When they sang, I pulled out my trusty little blues harmonica – in my pocket for occasions like this – and played the tune. When I was done the mother came over to say, sweetly, 'Thank you for playing the piano.'

Choradi: one more story like that, yes. But also an embodiment of what, for me, is the real take-home of travel. In the end, it is not the life lessons. Not the grand sights. Not the weighty truths to learn about places and peoples. I do not remember our drive through Karnataka for the waterfall at Jog, nor for the views from Talakaveri, not that they were not special. No, I remember first and instead the tastes of Choradi.

The small things. Even the mundane things. (Yes, the demolition too.) Travel is like that.

Like what happened days before we found ourselves folding paper planes in Laitkynsew. We stopped in Shillong. Knowing we had, a friend wrote a hasty e-mail. From across the country, these three words and no more: 'Find the teer.' Baffled, I nevertheless had faith enough in his worldview to start working out how I might accomplish this.

Visions coursed through my head of going up to sundry Shillong residents to ask, 'Where's the teer?', or maybe even, considering my ignorance, 'What's the teer?' In these visions, these gentlefolk give me suspicious glances and edge swiftly away, muttering all the while. But it did not turn out that way at all. The first person I asked knew exactly what I meant and gave us directions.

The word teer, of course, means arrow. I knew that, but I had no idea it might actually stand for something more, in Shillong, than just an arrow. Every afternoon, a couple of dozen archers gather on a nondescript field off a congested street, and in two ten-minute spells about an hour apart, they shoot arrows at a target. A few hundred people, almost all men, gather to watch.

One afternoon, we join them. My wife, mother-in-law and our six-year-old, the only females there.

Underestimating Shillong's crazy traffic, we reach just after the first ten-minute shooting session has finished. Waiting for the second, we watch a few men line up to throw arrows – throw them, not shoot – at a target several dozen feet away, a Coke-can-sized cylinder of straw stuck on a pole. One arm cocked behind the ear, the other pointing at the target, take a step forward and, in one swift smooth blur of cocked arm and shoulder and leaning body, throw. Amazing how many of the long slender bamboo missiles actually strike home. But are these guys practicing? Killing time? What? When we go up to ask one, he just smiles and turns away.

Then he turns back and offers us two sleek arrows for ten rupees apiece. Our six-year-old is overjoyed; I fish out a 20-rupee note; he just smiles and turns away again. Waves his hand dismissively. After naming his price only a minute earlier, now he does not want to be paid. We don't complain.

But this session is merely a teer-teaser. Half an hour later, about 30 men who have spent the interval tending lovingly to their arrows – cleaning, aligning feathers, checking points – suddenly rise, arrange themselves along a curved shooting gallery, squat on the ground and are ready to fire. They now clutch simple homemade bows, some elegantly painted: a man in a checked shawl has one that gleams black and yellow. Each man has an arrow fitted to the bow, a couple in his hand, and several more in a small pile at his feet. Ready to fire. Their target is several dozen feet away, also a straw cylinder on a pole, but much larger than before. Like one of those bolster cushions in living rooms.

There is a moment when it is like we are in a Sabavala painting: muted colours of late evening, wraith-like figures through the light drizzle, a sense of keen anticipation, everyone holding their breath. As if by magic then, but really at a quiet signal from someone, arrows by the hundreds begin slicing through the air. Absolute silence, except for the twanging of bowstrings, an occasional whirr from an arrow's feathers, the gentle thwack! as arrows either hit home or the ground beyond.

Ten minutes like this and a man raises a tarp to shield the target: time's up. The crowd surges forth. Absolute silence still. Men gather around the target, now like a pin-cushion, peering curiously without a word spoken above a whisper. Officials gather the successful arrows, then sit in a row at one end of the ground. They count. They stuff the arrows as they count, ten by ten, into square holes.

The crowd waits.

Finally, an official in a natty blue suit announces: 'Four hundred and twenty!' But the men have eyes only for the bunch of arrows he holds in his fist. He walks ostentatiously toward the crowd that is still silent, though almost visibly thrumming with excitement, and he throws arrows from his fist, one by one, so they stick in the ground. One, two, three – now the crowd counts with him – 'four, five, six!' Four hundred and twenty, and six more.

Breaths are released. Hubbub ensues. The crowd disperses across the ground. Some to collect winnings. Some to console themselves with a bite to eat.

Four hundred and twenty-six arrows hit the target. The last two digits are today's winning number, 26.

Others do it with tickets, balls or horses. But this, this is how Shillong gambles, strong and silent, every day of the year. Find the teer.

Small things

For all the long hours, the hurly-burly of trains and buses, travel offers this simple compensation: There is always plenty to mull over. It's like that as I walk back to our hotel after the teer is done. Strangely, I am reminded of Choradi.

It takes me a while to understand why. In both places, it's the men. It's their silence.

In her thoughtful book The Very Rich Hours, the American poet Emil Hiestand, writes of a languorous cruise with her husband through Florida's Everglades. Well, it is languorous until her houseboat runs 'hard into a deep shoal of silty marl.' Otherwise known as mud. What can they do? The smell is putrid, the radio doesn't work, and walking miles through mangroves is no option, even if they knew which direction to walk, which they do not.

So what does Emily do? Naturally, her predicament first gets her ruminating about poets' use of marl to symbolise hell: George Eliot, with her 'burning marl of perdition'. With time on her hands, Hiestand admires a heron's hypnotic hunting dance. She watches a lizard devouring a reluctant moth, noting how his 'beautiful throat bulges with metamorphosis'.

A good way to spend time stuck in the mud, noting the small things. From Choradi and Shillong, I come home with this: What keeps men silent? In Choradi, it's idlis. In Shillong, it's teer.

And maybe I was off the mark. Maybe there are indeed lessons to learn, in small things like these, about my country.

Dilip D'Souza is a writer and journalist in Mumbai.

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