About Us

Contact Us



Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters



What kind of train can one expect for 55 cents? It is packed... but this is still better than walking across the Pakistan-India border.

Work over, in a cab, towards the railway station. I had been checking my watch during the meeting. At precisely five, I said two quick goodbyes and slipped out. I'm arriving at the dusty, crowded Bangalore train station. Throngs of people are taking trains to everywhere in South India, the majority going to where I am going, to Mysore. Bangalore has a famous software development industry. It has cosmopolitan pubs and international shops. It has gardened arcades and cellphones. It also has five million people. Mysore has less than a million. Which makes it a small city in any part of the world, especially in India. 160km away from its big brother, it's got its own feel. "A manageable, slow-paced city," the guidebooks proclaim. In India? We'll see about that.

The train I'm on has only one passenger class and I'm in it. The mass of humanity, is all I can say. What kind of train can one expect for 55 cents? It is packed. The ceiling of each car leaves no space uncovered by fans, about one every square metre, only one of fifty is actually on. The benches fit three people, four very uncomfortably. The aisles are filled with people waiting for others to vacate somewhere down the line. Not too different than riding the N train downtown towards Brooklyn and positioning oneself near the Soho hipsters in hope of snagging their seat. The entryways have no yellow line to stand behind. And because I am a latecomer, I am here, two inches from the next guy over who himself is an inch from the guy sleeping on the floor. Who incidentally is employed by the railway as an assistant conductor,
I am later to find out. It's packed, it bears repeating, but this is still better than walking across the Pakistan-India border.

I'm settling in, as much as one could with two bags acting as bookends. A conversation is struck up with Pradeep who writes code for a 3G wireless apps company started by an Indian-American from Mountain View. He's twenty, articulate, funny in that goofy engineer kind of way. He listens to Pink Floyd and his taste in movies leans towards the macabre, particularly American Beauty. The ride is getting long and halfway through I wonder how gauche it would be to offer fifty rupees to anyone willing to give up his seat to the foreign-accented, seemingly-Indian man with the fancy shoes. As luck would have it, we stop at a Muslim town and out lurches a dozen or so women who are obviously of a very different social class than the average Bangalorean. I get a seat right under my suitcase and spend the last bit of the journey willing myself not to be hungry. Whole peanuts, a strange corn mixture, chips, other dry delights I can't name, tea, coffee; all are peddled periodically through the you-don't-really-expect-to-get-through aisles.

My parents are in Mexico worrying about me. Ironic how they, true Indian subcontinentals, should worry about their easy-to-blend-in son on a simple business trip to modern India when they endured bombing raids, less than perfect sanitary conditions and who knows what in their youth.

This is beautiful country. Not that I can see it now in the dark but I am to see it on the return journey. The road peeks in and out of view, mostly out; thereby enabling me and my fellow wistful passengers an unimpeded view of the serenity of he prosperous Indian countryside. As agricultural land goes, this inspires the urban viewer to imbibe it, in the same way that Tuscany or Saskatchewan does. Palm trees act as dividers between crop fields. Terrassed in parts, the landscape is green, vibrant as spinach, and brown like the crust of baked bread. In the distance, the high canopy of the jungle. I can just imagine the smells.

The train pulls in and Pradeep delivers me into the queue for a tuk-tuk, oops, rickshaw. The scary, druggie eyes of my driver and his choppy English questioning make me wonder if he knows where Paradise, my hotel, is. We arrive, he takes more money than he should, I check into my unimpressive room and run down to get right back in with Robert Downey Junior, back to the only place left open for food. Four dollars later and I am fed two beers, chicken tikka, rice, and koli Mysore, the local chicken curry. The head of staff makes pains to identify me, jabbering nationalities out as though we're playing Battleship. 'Arab,no? Maybe Italian?' He doesn't accept my explanation that I'm from Singapore. Who would, in fact? So I try Canadian and then American which then leads to the inevitable 'where are you really from' question. Half-this and half-that, I recite. I'm so confused. I stammer at the simplest of questions and seem unnecessarily cagey and evasive. It's hard to be from all over when you know that you're not. You aspire to be but it is an unattainable goal and, anyway, the point is to stop focusing on the self-aggrandizing end and instead focus on the aggrandizing journey.

Devaraja Market
Another interlude on food is called for. A few nights ago, I sat down for some of the food of Kerala, land of the god of small things, legendary beaches and green festivals. I choose three things off the menu. Why I'm having three dishes to myself, I only know. It's India. It's five dollars a dish. Why not sacrifice waistline comfort for a regal epicurean delight? Nonetheless, not everything is perfect. Ten minutes it takes for me to get a whiff of a menu and another ten minutes later, the maitre-d' comes by asking me to switch to another table. Mine is a table for four. When I realize that he wants to replace me with a couple, white no less, I was quietly indignant. Why should I downgrade to a lesser table when the latecomers could fit perfectly well into that table for two? No, I said. I don't think so. Battle won. Prime place assured. Let's just hope they don't spit on my fish.

I'm often reminded of the movie 'The Terrorist'. The vibrant and coldly vengeful anti-heroine is enlisted on a suicide mission for her people's cause but she is foiled by her concern for her unborn child. There is a slow-building scene where she eats her food in front of her tutor, pulling the colourful vegetable curries in slow arcs across the large green leaf into her mouth.
I've just had my first two bites. I have to proclaim that this is the best Indian food I have ever had. Two bites. Have you ever felt like you hit the jackpot? Like everyone else around you missed out and you've just been swimming in liquid gold, your feet in rosepetals, your every sense delighted by stimuli of unknown origin? This is how I feel. For the record, I ask for the menu again and scribble down everything I had.

Tiger Prawns Malabar style. Fresh, crisp tiger prawns tossed in peppery Malabar masala.
Black Pomfret. Fresh black pomfret marinated in Malabar masala, wrapped in banyan leaves and pan fried. Karavalli crab curry. Fresh blue crabs in a delicious, spicy gravy.

And as usual, it takes me twice as long to eat as everyone else.

In my first night in Mysore, I follow a recommendation to the local nightspot, The Blues Bar. It belies its name. As I step in, I'm astounded to find it nothing short of a hip-hop club transported exactly from Oakland or the Bronx. And yet, this is Mysore. Half the crowd is black, half Indian-wannabe-black and all cool. Except me.

Sleep comes. Sleep goes. I open my curtains and realize that I am perched on a beautiful leafy spot overlooking the groovy townfolk awhirl in their Saturday morning ablutions.
Mysore's Maharaja Palace, the star attraction is my next stop. This is the raison d'etre for all Mysore's travellers. It used to be the site of the Maharaja (kings) of Karnataka and is still occupied by "princes" post-Independence. The stately view of the edifice on its elaborate grounds does not leave you unmoved. Its combination of French pebble gardens, Roman bronze leopard statues, Islamic conical turrets, Hindu stonework, Italian marble and its obvious nod to Buckingham Palace gives the Maharaja Palace its grace and well-deserved draw. Once inside, the tour starts slowly with the crowds, almost entirely Indian, cramped into narrow halls filled with paintings with no context. Once glommed onto a tour guide saddled with a dozen Japanese, the palace comes to life. Four generations of kings in one remarkable painting. A photograph of three bejewelled boys. Clothes and trappings of the rich and famous. And then without warning, the palace itself bellows, demanding attention. The square foyer holds the visitor, inviting them in, but not too close so as to allow familiarity to dilute the dazzle that one must feel. The staircase is again pan-European in origin and design and yet has a hollistic balance like the Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul or a great Asian-fusion dish. Its steps leads to a floating stage, a semi-outdoor main court, right at the front of the palace. Its pale teal archways are lined up like loyal elephants, made infinite with clever mirrorwork. The shapes are sultry, if a shape could be considered sexy. Of course, it could and it does. This is where the king would sit and from where his subjects would watch him, all the while they would be wondering, "If this public hall is so beautiful, just imagine the private hall."

And when I step in, I gasp. The second shade of blue is like Paul Newman's eyes, a woman remarks. The gold balcony sparkles, serving no other purpose except for effect. The silver work in the doors is awe-inspiring as is the untraditional stained glass which lets just enough of India's unfair share of sunshine in. Around the central area is a rectangular dougnut space made sumptuous by the carefully carved teakwood ceiling and the Agra-like in-laid walls of stone decorated with semi-precious jewels in flowery patterns. A full ten minutes of wonderment pass and I long not to leave but I know when a tour is over and thanks must be paid.

Three kingdoms were particularly powerful and displayed their opulence at the time of Independence. Hyderabad lays claim to one, as do the pink palaces of Jaipur in Rajasthan, and of course, the Karnatakan jewel, sitting prettily in this charming, silky city of Mysore.

Somnathpur Temple

© Zia Zaman 2001

Splitting his time between travel-fiction writing and a day-job helping Sun Microsystems dominate the world, Zia Zaman now calls Singapore home. Born in Karachi, he has lived in Montreal, Boston, London, and San Francisco. His work has appeared in local press, Chance, MCI, Novelists Abroad, Hackwriters, and other litzines.
Zia Zaman's new book 
now on sale!
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available on Amazon.
ISBN: 0973288302

More travel stories by Zia Zaman in Hacktreks
Cape Cod
Danny Desai


Read "Bhutan Is and Other Shorts from Remote Asia" on An Unusual Day.

< Back to Index

© © Hackwriters and Hacktreks 1999-20003 all rights reserved