Madhya Pradesh, or the Middle Earth of India (taking liberties with translations) is where I spent my winter vacations. You can cross the entire gamut of Indian history here, right from rock art to the hiding places of Chandrashekhar Azad and most things in between. I saw without meaning to, some of the best of Indian wildlife and some of it's most astounding geology. Yet, between all this, something else, something different remains with me on from the ten days I spent there.
It happened on the morning I left Orchha. The next step was Khajuraho and the quickest, cheapest way was a passenger train, the local unreserved one from Jhansi. Orchha to Jhansi was a 30 km ride that took more than an hour in the densest fog ever, riding a jittery rickshaw which was following a blind truck, which in turn was driving in the middle of the road, following the white divider lines for direction. A shawl covered the rickshaw driver's entire head with a small slit for eyes, lined by thick rimmed spectacles. His hoarse throaty voice thanked God, once we reached destination. I just thanked him and the truck driver we were following.
After getting into the wrong coach, you see the train broke into two mid-way - one part to Allahabad and the second to Khajuraho, I finally figured out the right one and got a seat for myself. Wearing a jeans, a t-shirt and a backpack, I was slightly out of place which I tried making up for with a particularly dirty jacket. A book was in my hands, but the sandstone riven desolation of the Bundeli landscape invited me to stare outside. We passed a neelgai and I was particularly surprised, trying stupidly to take a pic from a passing train.
'Neel gai' - a voice in front of me said.
Tracing the voice to the seat in front of me, I saw a shawl covered, slightly toad skinned face. He was old, wrinkled and knew I was city-bred. I could see he was from these parts.
'Aaj thand bahot hai', I finally decided to make conversation. We spoke of the weather and the train, Indian railways and MP buses for some time.
He offered me the 'khaini' (tobacco-based) that he was having. I politely refused but continued talking in spurts. The train stopped in between and adrak-sellers flooded us on both sides. He bought some, I copied it.
I bought some peanuts at the next station and started talking again, happily littering the entire coach with everyone else doing exactly the same thing. His mouth full of tobacco and it was a bit difficult for me to understand what he said. But bored, I tried again:
"Aap yahin se hain?"
"____, yahin se. Khajuraho ke paas hi hai hamara gaon. Vindhyachal kehte hain MP ke is bhaag ko.". He explained a bit of the local geography about Chambal, Bundelkhand, Vindhyachal, Mahakaushal and Malwa which I have all but forgotten.
"Aap kahan se hain ?"
"Wahan ke DSP _____ ko jaante hain."
He gave me the name of some DSP. I was slightly amused. In these parts in the villages, everyone knows everyone else. So I clarified.
"Mumbai kaafi bada hai. Kaafi log rehte hain. Mere liye unhe janna zaroori nahi."
He kept silent. After a bit, I tried striking a conversation again.
"Aap Mumbai gaye hain"
"Haan. Hum gaye hain. Bahot bada hai. Hamare bachhe ko chura ke le gaye the. Tab gaye the wahan.". He said, straight and matter of fact, between cheekfuls of tobacco.
I thought I misheard. "Kab?"
"Hamara bachha hai na. Usse chura liya tha. Bheek mangvate hain na fir. Woh log le gaye the. Mumbai police ne pakad liya. Humein bulaya tha. Toh hum jaakar le aaye."
I was sort of dumbstruck. Didn't know how to respond. He continued:
"Tabhi toh mile the DSP ______ se. 5 bachhe aur the. Aas-paas ke gaav ke hi the. Unko bhi saath le aaye. Koi goli khila diye the use."
"Mumbai gaye hain hum. Dekhe hain. Badi jagah hai.", he repeated.
Going by his words, it seemed very matter of fact to him. It's life, it happens, your kids get kidnapped. The special part for him was of his having seen Mumbai.
It seemed weird, like I had entered another world. This very man must have lived here when dacoits roamed in these parts, when you regularly heard of shootings, kidnappings and the works, when you were never sure about yourself or your kids or your village. Road and railway here were 10 years old. It was not the hoary untouched past, but the very immediate past of a generation ago, a past whose stories were living memory in this terrain. A past which led you to believe that a kidnapping is an everyday thing. A past which was mesmerized with the idea of a city.
"Woh bachha hai na, jise laaye the, aaj yahin Jhansi mein Zee TV mein kaam kar raha hai." I could see a hint of pride shine through the slit like eyes. The thick lips widened into a smile for the first time.
He got off the train, after completing what was like any other commute of his. I got down after having experienced MP.