Large green swathes of forest, mottled by purplish-brown patches of less healthy vegetation, spread out under a filmy cloud cover as the aeroplane begins its descent. (On my first-ever day flight, I think I know what heaven looks like- thick, smoky whirls of cloud underneath, a few grey streaks in the distance, more pearly white fluff in pristine blue sky overhead. This is what the movies make it look like, anyway.) On the ground, the elevations are visible- barren red soil has given way to more fertile brown squares and swirls, criss-crossed by the sinuous curves of muddy or algae-choked rivers, occasionally punctuated by a lake or two. Garishly coloured houses come into view as the plane prepares to land; it taxies down the runway rather roughly, reminiscent of rattling buses bumping down pockmarked country roads. A low, unremarkable-looking building comes into view, the plane halts.
I am in Bhubaneswar.
This trip into Orissa, having been pondered and toyed around with for months, is finally happening. Summer isn’t exactly the right time to visit a state notorious for its heat waves, but trips never happen when meticulously planned- they’re best carried out impulsively.
After a ten-minute wait by the baggage carousel at the airport, which, frankly, is rather shabby when compared to the swanky grandeur of Bangalore, I haul my bag off and walk out to where my parents are waiting for me with a car- the journey isn’t quite over yet. I am going deeper into Orissa, into a small town- or village- barely touched by the trappings of modernity and the more pretentious varieties of prosperity.
After shopping for a few supplies at the supermarkets of Bhubaneswar- because the little town we’re going to doesn’t have anything larger than small, stuffy grocery stores by dry culverts, the kind redolent with the smell of grain and oil- we’re on our way. The roads are good and not very crowded once we exit the boundaries of the city. We pass a few dry river-beds as we go on to Cuttack, and then the sandy bed of the Mahanadi- the water, stored elsewhere, flows down in a barely visible trickle.
Hills rise gracefully in the distance, surprisingly green in the dry heat- there must have been some good rain not too long ago. Pink lotus flowers spread out thickly on a carpet of their own leaves on a pond. A steady wind blows through the countryside with a relatively sparse population. Buildings- a lodge, a temple, tea stalls- appear sporadically on what is mostly an unbroken stretch of agricultural land.
A narrow road branches off the highway to take us to our destination. Shops are jammed together closely on either side of it, almost appearing to encroach on the narrow road, wanting to swallow up the traffic that consists mostly of two-wheelers. Nondescript, yes- this could be a scene from any Indian village, a return to the roots from which our bustling cities have grown.
Houses line either side of winding roads through the town, old-world, grimy, wizened, cobwebbed. Yellow and grey. This is a town that time forgot to touch. The car draws up in front of our house, and the first thing that I notice is the decent-sized compound around it and the motley group of trees.
As I write, I’m in the bedroom by an open window that overlooks the treetops. Day darkens into dusk, the wind grows stronger and conspires with the trees in the garden, nudging them into song. The palm fronds and mango leaves rustle relentlessly, caressed by the wind. The stars will be out soon, and so will the moon- the elements of the night coming together to weave their spells in the near-silence of this town ensconced in, but untroubled by, its own placid life.