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In love in India

Mandu was a once a fortress town. One that does not allow an easy entrance. So much so that it became difficult even for emperor Akbar to conquer it. For lesser mortals like me it took 16 hours from Mumbai and crushing of several bones on the rough Madhya Pradesh roads to reach Mandu. As the bus roared into the first gate leading into Mandu I felt as if I was answering a call. One that had tugged at me for quite some time.

The first person I met in Mandu was Kedarnath Tiwari who owned a paan shop in the main market of Mandu. This talkative, 70-year-old man was to become the suttradhar of my stay in Mandu. Latter that evening he told me to visit the ancient lord Ram temple. Legend goes that some hundred years ago the statues of lord Rama, Sita and Laxmana where unearthed in the vicinity. The then queen of Mandu tried to take those statues to Indore and establish a temple there. But the elephant on which these statues where loaded refused to move. The queen got the message and a temple was established then and there.

However, the gods probably had different plans for me. It was the night of lunar eclipse and the temple was closed down for any kind of visits. I was refused permission to click any pictures. But then I saw something that changed the course of my vacation. Before embarking on this tour it was not clear why I was going alone to an unknown place that was hardly visible on the map. But now the picture was getting in focus. The first time I saw Mireille she was wearing an Indian silk complete with a bindi on her forehead. In the temple campus I just saw a flash of her. But that ethereal moment was enough to tell me that she was special for me.

Tiwariji introduced me to her when she came to his paan shop. This girl from France was in India for last 12 months and in Mandu for last 3 months. Mireille Herrbach was in love with India and I fell in love with her. That night when the last person had deserted Mandu’s market Mireille and me were still talking. Tiwariji had left the chairs of his shop outside for us. He would have left his shop open for us if he had felt that it would keep us together. From that day there was always an unspoken support to me from his side. Mireille was waiting for the lunar eclipse. Somehow I knew it wouldn’t occur as long as she was there. She pointed to the moon and I clicked it. It was like a white speck in the desert of darkness. She liked the picture. We spoke about a lot of things. She told me that she writes a diary. I told myself that I wanted to find a place in her heart and not in her diary.

That night while departing Mireille told me that she was going to Roopmati the next day. This opportunity was all I needed and asked her if I could accompany her. We decided to meet up at Tiwariji’s shop the next day at three. Roopmati palace is an enduring symbol of the love story of Baaz Bahadur and his beloved Raani Roopmati. The next day I reached Tiwariji’s paan shop well before time. Tiwariji could sense my restlessness and I told him about our plan. After that he was waiting in as much anticipation as I was. Mireille emerged from the horizon of Mandu’s market and was heading towards the paan shop. She just waved at both of us and walked into the adjacent guesthouse where she lived. Tiwariji’s heart also skipped a beat. Minutes later she came to the shop and told me, let’s go. My happiness knew no limits. First it was Baaz Bahadhur and Raani Roopmati now it shall be Mireille and me. But as she led the way, she took an exactly opposite road. It took a while to dawn on me that she had actually meant Roopmati Hotel, where I was holding up, and not Roopmati Palace. Mireille gave French lessons at the hotel. I trudged behind her. The pain of a heartbreak that I had forgotten came back to me.

Next day Mireille gave me a little booklet about Mandu. It will guide you around, she told me. Little did she know, I wanted to be guided around by just one person, and that was her. In her absence I wandered off on my own. On the way a kid of not more than 15 yrs joined me. He wanted to take me to all the famous places in Mandu. But I told him to take me to places neither in any of the books nor in any map. These were the places Kanu frequented when he ran away from school or stayed away from home. These were ramshackled forts and palaces. Toady a far cry from their rich past. But for me the real charm was in these places untouched by modernity or the ugly restoration work initiated by the government. He took me to a cave at the edge of a cliff. Deep inside in the utter darkness was a gleaming Shivling. Water trickled over this Shivling throughout the year. No body knows the source of water. In side the cave it was cool and the gleaming Shivling looked aesthetic. In that cramped dark cave filled with water and the sound of it trickling I had the feeling of being one with the god. And the outer world looked intimidating.

Kanu later took me to one of the gates that once guarded the entrance to Mandu. We took the road less traveled. This was unknown to the tourists and known only to the locals. Less traffic had allowed the moss to gather on those steps. The morning sun beat down upon the moss covered ashen steps. “These steps are extremely slippery”, Kanu warned me. Somehow sitting there I started thinking about friends, family members and moments that have slipped away from me on the steps of time.

Kanu left me on the way back, without saying a word, as he had joined me. Later I was told by Tiwariji that kids like Kanu usually charge money for guiding tourists. I went around in vain looking for him. Few days later while I was sipping my chai Kanu came and sat opposite me. He was wearing the same smile that he first greeted me with. That smile had made me surrender to him. I gave him some money. He took it promptly.                           

I was told by the Maharaj of the Ram temple that I should visit Neelkanth temple. Not much is known or written about this temple. Local knowledge says that Emperor Akbar often visited this place and it bears an inscription by him. As I entered the courtyard of the temple a woman in bright pink sari was offering prayer to lord Ganesha. The screaming orange colour of the statue carved out of stone and bright pink of her sari…the moment was irresistible…I pulled out my camera and tried to capture the moment. The woman was in deep conversation with her god. I was feeling guilty about disturbing them. To break their moment of peace. But somehow I went ahead. Surprisingly the woman didn’t flinch a bit or get conscious. That for me was the true meaning of offering the prayer.      

Mandu’s market was like a lazy child that slept early and woke up very late. And with it Tiwariji’s and his paan shop also shut down early in the evening and woke up late in the morning after 10. Tiwariji’s would however hang out late in the night with me. There was day when the old man got carried away too much and stayed back with me till wee hours of the morning. The next day he opened his shop only after 12 noon. Mireille was a little confused next morning when she saw his paan shop closed till afternoon. I think I told her that I was making him used to the city life.

In these late night outs Tiwariji would usually take me to the temple Dharamshala. Up there over the temple in this dharamshala I met some of the youngest and brightest minds. They had given up their family, friends and the world to learn Hindu religion and later preach it. Before this I had once seen them during the aarti. I had imagined them to be some kind of purists living in a tyrannical set up. But up there their life was like any one of us. They laughed, joked and watched Sunny Deol’s film The Hero love story of a spy. Mireille later told me that a kid at the dharamshal cried inconsolably when his family was departing after meeting him. It was then I wondered no religion in the world can replace love.

Love that had tacitly called me to Mandu. And unknowingly I had followed its call…to find Mireille.  

The road back from Mandu was bumpy as usual. But on the bus ride back I didn’t feel a bump here or broke a bone there. Because I was lost in a far deeper trance. A trance called… Mireille

Back in the city my work is boring as usual. In fact,  more mechanical than before. After spending those evenings filled with chai and Mireille’s and Tiwariji’s talks everything around me looks so assembly line.

 Mandu and Mumbai are separated by barely 600 kilometers. The distance I can gauge but the difference I still can’t decipher. What gets people all worked up and excited in Mandu hardly raises an eyebrow in Mumbai.

For instance in Mandu, a local Muslim youth ran away with the wife of a highly respected Hindu man. The villagers tracked down the eloping couple, brought them back to the village, burnt down the muslim youth’s house and let off the entire community with a warning. The hindu man’s wife stored back to the kitchen and his pride restored.
The entire Mandu was up in arms and the incident will serve as a warning for generations to come.

In Mumbai an incident like this plays out almost daily in the cramped by lanes. It even spills out on to the streets sometimes. But we pass by on the other side of the road. Worried and harried to catch our bus…

Bus reminds me of the moment I stepped out of the bus back from Mandu in Indore city. I knew an important chapter had closed down. Something that I will keep going back to over and again.

Something that will bring a smile to me each time I remember the way Mireille spoke in Hindi, something that will fill my heart with hope each time I picture her walking up the horizon of Mandu’s market…something that will give me immense joy each time she called me chai …something that will lead to a silent moment a million words can’t explain each time she pointed to the moon that I clicked…

Something that will make my heart heavy and feet immovable the last time she said goodbye to me in Mandu.

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