Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Varanasi Trail

*phone rings*

I am visibly annoyed at the call. I am out on a lunch date with my wife who complains I don't spend enough weekends with her and here is Riju Dasgupta - my bandmate, my band manager, the sole reason why my wife might one day decide to give me long-lasting pain, my 'weekendstealer' and worst of all, a bassist - trying to reach me while I am devouring idli sambar and zoning the wife out. If you know me, you don't do that!

But then again, Dr. Hex has news.
"Dude, got a show offer from IIT in Varanasi".
"What? Varanasi? People want to listen to our music in Varanasi? Why?"
"I don't know, man. But the offer's great. The money's good. And it's on January 24th."

January 24th? I sheepishly look at my wife who still hasn't the slightest clue I am thinking - "New city. New people. Fucking Varanasi. Hell yeah! Let's do this shit."

And then I hear myself saying, "No man! That is the week I am moving homes. Mukta will need me."

A very apparently disappointed Riju says, "Ok man! But ...."

Cut to Utopia! All issues have been sorted. That bassist always has all the solutions. An early departure from Varanasi for me has been arranged for. Mukta was more upset about me turning down the gig than anything else. A set with incredibly long Albatross songs has been put together. What everyone conveniently forgets - We are flying SpiceJet from Bombay to the Holy City.

Yes, before we wonder if the fine lads at IIT-BHU will be enthralled much by Albatross, we are faced with a bigger question - Will SpiceJet even allow us to do the damned gig?

And then again, I have my own set of worries with a flight that is 6 hours late. "Just the gig and then fucking off the next morning. Fuck! I will not be able to see a city that had me fascinated for a long time". Of course, the vocalist in a band has the least baggage to carry on a tour, physical or otherwise.

We land in Varanasi at 8:30 pm, six hours late and very, very cold. We come from Bombay, remember? We are around 30 kms away from IIT-BHU. We are to take stage at 9 pm. "Fuck soundcheck! We will play 2 songs."

We completely don't know we have Paul Walker (God bless his soul) for two cabbies who drive those horrid, narrow streets of Varanasi piercing through blinding fog. "Boss! Theek hai. Aaram se chalao. Time pe nahi pahuche to chalega" screams Dr. Hex who probably would be telling his rosary if he was a believer. This after he had proudly declared, "Bhaiya, bhagao, ok?".

We actually make it on time. The cars stop right next to the stage. We get out of them feeling like absolute bosses. Of course, the change of clothes behind the stage in full public view is a fine reality check.

Not two songs, we play our entire set! We even manage an encore act complete with a very weird and impromptu drum solo and a guitar duel. My performance would rank among my very worst but the kids have fun and I now know, that matters a lot more. To have a bunch of them jumping onstage, kneeling down and headbanging in unison as if in a strange trance is absolutely worth 4 SpiceJet trips. To say nothing of my Bret Hart act walking up the ramp high-fiving all and sundry, girls running onstage to kiss a very conscious and irritated Nishith Hegde and Dr. Hex being all excited about his wireless unit all day then forgetting to connect it properly onstage and murmuring behind his 'ball-guard' (Thank you, Nolan!), "Bhenchod! Ye use karne se pehle hi kharaab ho gaya".

Much to my dismay, all the Varanasi I get to see the chilly Jan 24th is the magnificent IIT-BHU campus. I will not complain much. The kids go out of their way to make us feel special and comfortable. I wish we were half as good as they make us seem to be. They hang out with us late into the night, smuggle in the inevitable Old Monk bottle and of course, get us the 2:30 am hostel canteen's Maggi and omelettes.

I have grand plans of visiting the Ghat early next morning. Needless to say, that doesn't happen. I remember being amused the previous night at a remark made by the cabbie - "Sir, morning mein ghat zaroor jaana. Bahut foreigner tourists milenge". The pervert obsession with fair-skinned tourists remains appalling and funny to me at the same time.

 I have to make a dash for it the next morning to catch my 11:30 am Air India flight. I will not lie but I was really hoping the flight would get cancelled, the boys would scream, "Surprise! We rescheduled your flight and you are going back with us tomorrow" because if you didn't already know, I really wanted to check the city out. Of course, the boys don't love me as much.

My trip back to the airport at 8 am happens in a local auto-rickshaw. All the cars are busy ferrying other guests, I am told. I groan but it all works out fine in the end.

Risking sounding like an "Oh-You-Know-I-Tasted-Real-India" for my social media followers, I quite enjoy the 90-minute auto-rickshaw ride. I doubt I would have been able to smell and actually, yes, taste Varanasi in an air-conditioned cab.

Pathetic, absolutely pathetic roads that are dug up at every nook and corner, nightmarish city design, dirty but that gorgeous Kashi morning, people on cycles rather than huge sedans, people hanging out with tea, cigarettes, newspapers at rundown stalls; I am forced to go back to a typical cold morning in Kolkata, something I terribly miss. Mukta would have hated it but it is just how I love things; being a small town lad and ... hold your breath ... awfully OLD SCHOOL!

Thankfully, Air India isn't as bad as people say it is. SpiceJet is trying its level best to beat them at this game. The flight takes off 15 minutes late and lands in Bombay 20 minutes before scheduled time.

The next day, the boys call me from Varanasi before they board their flight home. The buggers didn't see the city, didn't meet aghoris and smoke grass with them like they planned to. They got incredibly wasted in their rooms instead and fell asleep. One day Dr. Hex and his henchmen will know what an incredible opportunity it is to travel being in a band.

I missed out on the jalebis. But I hear, we might do a trip up north later this year. Till the next time then.

All things Holy and Biprorshee

The author is the frontman of a Mumbai-based heavy metal band - Albatross - and he loves everywhere his band takes him. He loves his wife a tad too much too.