2006, my first year of college. Winter was about to start, I lived in the campus hostel, it was the beginning of my adventures.
The plan was to go to Vaishno Devi, for a hilariously stupid reason. I had a girlfriend, acquired somehow after she accepted my “proposal”, whatever the hell that meant. For some reason that I don’t understand now, I’d promised myself that I’d go to Vaishno Devi if she accepted. I’ve never been very religious, its value in my life has been inversely proportional to my age, but that was the plan, to go to Vaishno Devi.
I think that was the plan because I hadn’t told my parents, and did not plan to. This was going to be my first big journey alone, and I wanted to tell my parents only after I’d reached the top. Parents get worried when you tell them you are going to do something stupid, so I made a rule to tell them once it was done. I think I decided to go to Vaishno Devi because the probability of getting into trouble for a trip there was low, it was a strategic decision, what parent is going to get angry at their child for doing a religious yatra?
If I’d called them from some beach in Goa, that would’ve been a whole other story.
I had a Nokia 1600, it was the time of Orkut and Windows 98. I got little internet time at the college library, and most of it was spent asking “ASL?” to random dudes on Yahoo Messenger. I did not research about the trip, I did not know how many kilometers it was from my hostel to the temple, and I did not know how many days the trip was going to be. I took an auto to Chandigarh, went to a travel agent, and asked him everything. Based on the information given by this stranger that I’d just met, I bought 2 sleeper bus tickets, Chandigarh to Katra, and Katra to Chandigarh, spaced by 2 days and 1 night.
College life for me had little to do with education, it was all about exploration, of every sort. I could go anywhere, do anything, and I did. I had lost interest in studies after 10th grade, but I had no trouble making the minimum possible effort to get presentable marks in exams. Luckily, the college I ended up in wasn’t very strict with attendance, it would’ve been a shame to give up on this chance.
It was an overnight bus journey, I finished my classes for the day, went to my room, picked up my backpack and took an auto to the pickup point. I had become a backpacker, although at that time I did not know such a thing existed. I was at the pickup point early, like 3 hours early. I had severe OCD issues at this point in my life, 3 hours was the minimum buffer I was comfortable with.
What if the bus leaves early? What if I can’t find the stop? What if my autorickshaw hits an IED and barrel rolls on the way and I have to get a bus which gets sawed in half by a giant robot monster and the biker who gives me a lift crashes into a fuel tanker driven by Vin Diesel and I have to run all the way to catch my ride? That was a reasonable possibility, and I had to be prepared for it.
The bus arrived, I got on, and immediately realized I hadn’t thought about my contact lenses, what was I going to do with them? I had 2 choices:
- Take them out, keep them in the case, sleep, and put them back on in the morning
- Don’t take them out, try not to sleep
I chose option 2, because there was no way in hell I was going to touch my lenses with hands that hadn’t been washed 11 times.
It was a rough night, it felt like I was sleeping inside an Iranian centrifuge. I had no knowledge of where I was at any time during the journey, we stopped at some dhaba in the middle of the night and I didn’t even bother to step outside. I hated public toilets, and my brilliant plan to avoid them was to hold my pee indefinitely. I ended up dozing off, woke up to find my lenses had crawled into some deep corner of my eye and I couldn’t find them. Took a few tears to get them lubed up and slide back into position. We’d reached Jammu, and the conductor walked up to me.
“Here’s 60 bucks, there are a lot of tempos that run from here to Katra, they’ll take you there.”
“But I bought a ticket to Katra.”
“That’s why the 60 bucks.”
Well, fuck. 5 am in the morning, and I’m on a bridge somewhere, half asleep, with no sense of direction, and still a long way from where I was supposed to be. There were a few tempos in front of me, and a few people from my bus got into one, and so did I. It was a smaller, more uncomfortable centrifuge, and we made it to Katra.
By this time my brilliant plan to not pee was backfiring, it felt like if I didn’t take a leak the piss was going to return to my kidneys and trickle back into my blood. I’d read about nephrons in school, they are quite awesome, but I couldn’t remember how they stopped the backflow of urine into blood. It was too early in the day, I was tired, weird thoughts were obvious.
I moved away from the bus stop in Katra where the tempo left us, and towards the entry gate, in hope of finding a place to relieve myself. I didn’t see any hotels around, at least nothing that looked cheap. There were too many people there to just let it flow in a bush somewhere, and more importantly, I was in a holy place, easy to offend someone here.
Things were not looking good, I kept thinking that my blood was slowly going to get replaced by pee, but that it was a good thing because then I could just cut my finger and the pee would flow out and I would feel better, and then I would never need to pee like a normal human, I would just go like those aliens from Scary Movie 3, and then I would be the beginning of a new evolutionary chain of people who peed from their fingers.
My disturbing thought process was broken by two weirdly icky but well-known words: “Sulabh Shauchalaya”. All this time trying to stay away from public toilets, and now my only option was the mother of them all. I did not want to go in, but what else could I do?
I walked on towards the dude asking people if they were going to shit or pee, and I thought what kind of a job profile is that? If you want to apply for this job where the job description was asking people if they were going to shit or pee, what sort of qualifications do you need? Do they ask for references? Is there a written exam? Can you get certifications? What does he tell his wife when he gets back home?
“How was your day honey?”
“Oh nothing much, just a normal workday of asking random men if they wanted to shit or pee. One Einstein told me he was just going to pee, but spent like 9 minutes inside, and I was like dude, there’s no way you were taking a leak and he was like na haan, I have serious urinary tract infection and it takes me 9 minutes to pee, and I was like lol nice try, give me 2 bucks, so he did and that was cool.”
Yeah, I really needed to sleep.
Suddenly a guy walked up to me.
“Do you need a hotel room for a few hours, to get fresh?”
“Yes I do need one.”
“OK, the hotel is just behind those buildings over there, you can get fresh.”
“How much is it going to cost?”
“No need to pay anything, just buy prasad from us and that’s enough, once you get fresh you can give us whatever daan you feel happy with.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
He was a short guy, probably in his 40s, had a beard, he looked ordinary. We walked behind a building, then into some street, then turned, then walked some more, then turned, and walked, and walked, and turned, and entered an old house with an old wooden door. The house had high walls all around it, the wooden door opened into a yard, there was a room on the left, a washroom on the right, and 2 doors on the other side.
I was told to leave my bag in the room on the left, I did. Then I was lead to one of the doors on the other side, the door was opened. It was like a medium-sized hall, there was some bedding on the floor, and a girl was lying on it.
She was young-ish, wearing a suit and a dupatta on her head, I couldn’t see her face properly. When I entered, she noticed and sat up, looked at me and said nothing. I thought she must be the occupant that I’m going to replace, and I told her I’ll be back after making a trip to the washroom. I walked out, there was a white sink outside the washroom, and I washed my hands in it.
After washing my hands I was about to splash some water on my face, when through the corner of my eye I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of people in front of my room.
I turned left, between the 2 doors now stood a few girls, 5 or 6 in number. All of them were wearing suits, but there were no dupattas to be seen anymore. They were young, probably younger than me, with a variety of skin tones, but a single thin figure. They stood there, motionless, looking at me. I looked at them. Then I looked at the man who’d got me here, he was standing to the left of the girls, in front of the door to my room.
He raised his left arm, and waved it towards the girls, like a waiter presenting a 5 course buffet meal.
“Do you want to get fresh?”.
I do not know how I did not shit my pants, I was in a fucking brothel.
I don’t know how I realized it so quickly that I was in a brothel, I hadn’t been to one before, but somehow I made the connection, which is quite interesting. What the fuck do you do if you are 18 and in a brothel, what’s the protocol? Do you do an imperial curtsy and walk out the door without showing your back? Do you discuss the evolutionary and socio-economic roots of prostitution? Do you go eeny meeny miny moe? I must’ve stood there staring at the girls for seconds, frozen, like a dog in front of a speeding truck.
Fear took over, and I was suddenly very scared. I was scared of being robbed, I probably should have been scared of being raped. Fear is good, it forces you into action. I turned, walked to the room on the left, picked up my bag, and walked towards the door, waiting for a hand to reach out and grab me, the man shouting “You don’t have to pay anything, just get fresh and buy some prasad!”.
As a child, if I had to go from a dark room to one with light, I sometimes felt this creepy sensation that something was behind me, chasing me, and I couldn’t run any faster towards the light. That’s exactly the way I felt looking at the door, although I did not run. My backpack was too big, and I think I was embarrassed of running in front of the girls.
Teenagers need to impress everyone, even prostitutes they’ve just met.
I was outside, walking the way we’d come from, and I looked back. The man was in the doorway, looking depressed, like a crocodile who catches a gazelle crossing the river, but can’t drag him deep enough before he kicks loose and swims away.
There were a lot of thoughts inside my head, the first one was “Was that my fault? Do I look like someone who needs prostitutes to get up in the morning? Is it something I’m wearing? My hairstyle? My face?”. I could not find anything obvious that made me look like a sexual deviant, nothing on my face that shouted “I need whores at 7 in the morning”. Maybe I looked young, rich, alone, and the guy thought he could make a quick buck. Probably. What were those girls doing there? Are they being held against their will? Should I go to the police? Also, how did I know so suddenly that I was in a brothel? Was it a connection made through watching too many movies and TV series? Did porn help?
All through these monologues, I traced back the route to the Sulabh Shauchalaya, without making a single wrong turn. Nice. The dude asked me if I wanted to shit or piss, I gave him 2 bucks without answering and went in. I wasn’t able to do much inside, I’ll not give you the details of why, let’s just say it was difficult to walk without stepping into stuff you didn’t want to step into. I ended up walking out, found a fancy looking restaurant, ordered some costly food and used their clean washroom. The man and the girls were soon forgotten, but my first solo experience of a religious place was disgusting.
I walked up to the top by evening, called my parents, slept in an awesome dormitory, walked back down the next day, got a tempo to Jammu, and waited for my bus, 3 hours early. Got the bus, reached Chandigarh, took an auto to college, went to the hostel, my room, and took a bath. That felt much better, and I lay in my bed analyzing what had happened.
If you find yourself in a whore house in the beginning of your first long journey, it’s worth asking yourself “How do I make sure that doesn’t happen again?”, unless you want to be in a whore house at 7 in the morning, in which case more power to you. My conclusion was that it was a freak accident, but I should be more careful with people who offer deals that are too good to be true.
The incident has become funny with time, because I survived. It became a story that I told only to people closest to me, to ask another human their thoughts on the experience. I went to Vaishno Devi once after that, next year, on a motorcycle, with a friend, but that’s a different story.
I am a lucky guy, I have made so many bad decisions for which I didn’t pay the full price, and hence they’ve become interesting stories. If I had, they’d be repressed memories and psychological scars. Every time I hear someone say those words now, this memory flashes back, and I smile a little.
“Do you want to get fresh?”