Backward waters

I was in Attara, a one-horse town in eastern Bundelkhand. The badlands of Uttar Pradesh, where murder and kidnapping is as common as the cycles on its dirty roads. Its a train ride from the Delhi, and emerging from the cocoon of the second class air-conditioned coach made me feel strangely vulnerable and elated. Attara’s railway station is a single platform affair, just a foot higher than the tracks so I had to clamber down the coach’s stairs bag in hand.

There were few people around waiting desultorily for their train. The exit was through a small multi-purpose building that served as the station master’s office, ticket office and coolie room. Outside the parking area was dust with an assortment of ramshackle vehicles – a fatfatia, a few autos with Kirloskar diesel engines, rickshaws and a tonga. Thankfully Suresh was there on his bike. We hugged and I clambered on a rickshaw, to follow him.

Lakshmi Guest House is one of two hotels in Attara. The less said the better. I went through the grill door, up a narrow flight of steps to their main room – large with a cooler and its own bathroom. The other rooms don’t have attached bathrooms and were inhabited by an assortment of men in their kachas. A boy brought in a jug of water and glasses, and tea a while later. The owner came and told me lunch would be served downstairs.

Suresh and I ate rotis, boiled cauliflower-and-potatoes, and daal. The cauliflower concoction was lousy but the daal was another matter. Fiery, it was the perfect accompaniment to rotis: daal roti khao prabhu ke gun gao. Anyway, this set the stage for many meals to follow. I could alleviate boredom by ordering scrambled eggs – egg bhujia, but there was no meat to be found in public at least.

Traveling in those parts in jeans is not recommended. Track pants (no shorts) or loose pants are the best. Dress conservatively and shoes are recommended as the dust enters everything and the streets are piggy. T shirts are OK, but shirts are better. It is cold in the mornings even in summer though the days get really hot.

The only ways to get around are on foot, motorcycle or jeep. Cars are useless as the roads are almost non-existent. This is a ‘backward’ part of India, surprising since it is fertile land that was once the centre of great kingdoms. Beautiful also, with thick forests and hilly terrain from where many rivers flow. But its backward in the eyes of the government because there aren’t industries here. Perhaps it’s just as well. This is the land of 1000 year old architecture, Khajuraho and mysticism. The Pandavas and Ram meandered here in the past. So did assorted ascetics and sadhus. Now criminals hold sway but heaven knows what they find to plunder in this beautiful desolation.

We head to Tendura, Suresh’s village, to see a few ponds. Crossing the tracks near the railway station, we drive next to a swamp of shit water, Attara’s sewage. Tendura is 5 KM through fields of sugarcane and wheat. He has an rambling mud and brick house that accommodates his large family and animals. Outside is an abandoned well. A short walk through muddy streets brings us to one pond. Legend has it a rich trader stopped there to rest 400 years ago and had a dream to make a pond. The next morning villagers found a bag of money and used it to make the pond.

Nearby is another, built on the instructions of a baba after the village suffered an epidemic of plague. He decreed nobody should fish there, but a man did and was struck low. The pond teems with fish. Suresh drops me back to the lodge for the night, and I lock myself in. The bathroom has a strangely curving wall that threatens to collapse on me at any moment, especially while squatting on the Indian-style shitpot. The lodge boy knocks and leave a bucket of hot water outside. I dilute this with tap water and have a welcome bath. Lovely, lovely. A short while later after dinner there is a commotion outside – a drunk cop is arguing with another drunk man but they soon kiss and make up, and go back inside to continue their binge.

Suresh comes next morning with a jeep to being our 4-day Bundelkhand tour of the Chandela and Bundela ponds – large artificial lakes built a millennium ago by the Rajput rulers. The jeep is necessary given the lack of roads and the piles of garbage on what pass for streets. It also gives us some gravitas in this overly macho outpost of the country that no car can provide. This journey is chronicled in my book Jalayatra –


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