6 December 2012

A Journey of Discovery

Routine. Each evening, Rukmini would make a list of things to do for the next day, check the calendar, combine her list with the bar's needs, and she was set. Next day she would run her errands, cross things of the list and by that evening, sit down to make the next list. Life felt stagnant: an endless cycle of chores, and Rukmini felt sucked into the vortex of the mundane. She considered taking a holiday, but she hadn't travelled since Murugan's death and was apprehensive about being in a new place, alone with her thoughts. But the beauty of life is that adventure comes to those who seek it, so after a few weeks of mulling it over, Rukmini decided to get bold.

One of her customers had told her about a travel group exclusively for women. It was the type of tour where everything was pre-arranged and organized: all she had to do was follow instructions. This hadn't sounded too bad; after all, she was surrounded by the voices of women in the bar all the time, so she wouldn't feel lonely and empty on this type of tour. On enquiry, she learned that the next tour was scheduled in two weeks and called the "Holy circuit", because it covered Hindu pilgrimage sites. The trip started from Benaras, moved on to Haridwar, Rishikesh and ended in Uttarkashi. The next tour was three months later and would be "Hills of Sikkim".

Rukmini cringed when she heard this - going to temples and feigning piety was not something she would enjoy. Yet, her procrastination skills were so superior and her  discomfort with the idea of a holiday so strong, that were she to opt for the next tour, she would conveniently forget to plan for it. So before her mind had the opportunity to debate, she signed up for the temple tour in the hope that her fellow passengers would provide an adequate antidote to the ritualism toxicity that she was sure to experience.

She landed in Benaras on a warm afternoon. Standing at the arrival lounge exit was, as promised, a man holding a placard with her name. She walked into the grumpy face of a gutka chewing, pot-bellied driver, who had in seconds evaluated her net worth from the type of sari and amount of jewelry she wore. Based on this, he sized her up as a poor tipper and treated her accordingly. On the drive to the hotel, Rukmini felt that she experienced every pot hole and wondered if his driving was meant to help passengers remember the lord as a build up to the spiritual experience they were to have. He dropped her off at the hotel with as much disdain one would have for a rotting head of cabbage. As Rukmini entered the lobby she could hear a woman's voice, strident and angry. The linen in her room was dirty and despite several requests, it had not been changed. After saying her piece, the woman stormed off without waiting for a response from the reception desk. The man at the counter made eye contact with Rukmini, shrugged and said, "She doesn't have patience, Madam, what to do? She has a problem every 10 minutes and expects the hotel staff to anticipate it, and resolve it even before she complains." Rukmini for her part, had nicknamed the woman Ms Huffy, and hoped she was on the tour.

Dinner that night was hosted in a separate room for all the group members. Ms Huffy was there, harassing the waiter about the temperature of her soup. Rukmini took a seat at a table and was joined by a matronly sari-clad woman who clutched her handbag tightly. She wore a big bindi that matched her sari, and spoke softly but sweetly. Rukmini decided she was Ms Lily and didn't even catch her name when she introduced herself. When they had settled down to eat, Lily laid bare her whole life and in a few minutes was displaying pictures of her various grandchildren. Rukmini wondered why a woman like her was not traveling with her husband. She was compelled, in exchange, to talk about her life. Before embarking on the tour Rukmini had decided that she wouldn't talk about being a bar owner, expecting that a majority of her tour members would not be the type to appreciate it. So she painted herself as a widow on a pension, trying to make peace with her life, a description she mused dryly was not too far from the truth; for aren't we all trying to make peace with our lives?

Mid-way through the meal they were joined by a woman who either did not care how she appeared, or had forgotten what she was wearing. She was in a pink nightgown, with a bright blue duppatta thrown over her shoulders that clearly belonged to a salwar suit. Ms Loopey, as she was immediately named in Rukmini's head, sat down and started to cry. She had somehow managed to lock herself out of her room, and without her glasses couldn't see well enough to find the lobby. Lily just gawked at her shamelessly, her masticated shahi panner visible to all. Rukmini consoled Loopey, gently taking her glasses from her frazzled hair and handing it to her. She promised to walk with her to the reception after dinner.

A few minutes later, Huffy joined them. It appeared that all her dinner companions had conveniently excused themselves to either disappear to their rooms, or to other tables. Within seconds, Huffy launched into a tirade about the poor quality of arrangements, too much sugar in the dessert, weak coffee and everything that came into her head. The only redeeming feature of her verbal diarrhea was that no one was expected to engage in it. Participation was limited to listening or in Rukmini's case, faking listening. Soon though, Lily muscled in with grandkids and Loopey was asking them to make sure that the bus waits for her, in case her alarm fails. They had morphed into a group. Bound to each other to hold handbags outside toilets, the best seats in the bus or to simply be available to listen!

Rukmini felt at home, and smiled inwardly at the wickedly entertaining holiday she was going to have.

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