IT HAPPENS to many of us, those who have routinely packed small duffel bags or backpacks and rushed off at short notice to train stations or bus stands or airports — we stop wanting it. Travel becomes synonymous with work. It certainly has happened to me.
Besides, after years of chasing stories I find it difficult to look forward to travel if it doesn’t involve some kind of seeking. Seeking relief from the debilitations of May-June in the plains is no longer enough. If I take the trouble to pack and go, I want to feel something more than just cold. And while I often crave silence, I find that easier to find in the bustle and anonymity of cities rather than in hill stations or beaches. There is too much birdsong in the morning, too many tourists with squalling kids, too much hustling in the streets. So, if you were me this summer, you’d head to a city like Amritsar.
Why Amritsar? Because even if it is hot, it isn’t as humid as Mumbai. And it isn’t a tourist spot except for religious pilgrims, so you escape annoyances like everybody selling Tibetan motifs on key chains and carved wooden elephants. There isn’t an insistent hustling that seems to accompany most pilgrim destinations.
Amritsar is Punjab in all the filmi ways. You have the pleasure of seeing turbans in dozens of colours, and tied in half a dozen different styles. In fact, turbanwatching was one of my favourite time-pass activities when I visited.
The journey to Amritsar is full of other Punjabi clichés. Take the morning Shatabdi from Delhi and you are sure to run into a couple of jolly, rotund businessmen who talk too loudly. Some large-eyed young women who have begun to put on a little bit of weight around the chin. A few girls with hair dyed blonde, dressed to kill even at 6 am. Lush green fields breezing past. Neat rows of poplar. There will be tractors, and women walking through the fields, rotis wrapped in cloth balanced on their heads.
Amritsar is named after the pool that surrounds the Golden Temple and means ‘the holy pool of nectar’
Nearest airport: Amritsar, Punjab
The city is currently a great mash-up of old and new. Long plaits, bright dupattas, old men pulling cycle rickshaws, tight jeans, lungis, squat brick houses and spanking new glass buildings. Like most Indian capital cities, there’s an edge of politics in the city’s air, and bitter histories embedded in its heart. The Golden Temple is an absolute must-go even if you are an atheist. Go when dawn is breaking and the gurbani is filling the grey, within and without. In the early evening, head to Jallianwala Bagh. The place isn’t meant to be seen; it has to be experienced.
Wander about in hall bazaar. Shop for a turban or a parandi or dupatta or shawl, even if you don’t want one. Find a dhaba around the station, and near the harmandir Sahib — the Golden Temple — and eat rajma-parantha and daal makhni. Drink lassi. And if you feel lost, hang around at the railway station and watch people come and go, and reveal slivers of the stories they could tell if you began to ask.