"Orissa? What happens in Orissa?" asks my cousin.
I shrug. I don't really know. And this worries me. In a couple of hours I am to catch a flight to Bhubaneshwar to find out everything a viewer of BiggAss Network's travel channel would want to know. I have less than 5 days to do this. I am shitting multiple proverbial bricks.
As a Delhiite, the first thing I notice about the capital is its roads. Bhubaneshwar scores big. Good roads. Also great traffic, in that, there is none. Waiting for the traffic light to turn green, the cab driver turns to me and says: "Sorry madam, office-hours crowd." There are all of seven other cars on the 4 lane road. It now dawns on me why my Oriya friend, who claims to be an excellent driver, nearly crashed my car while driving in Delhi. She is an excellent driver. In Bhubaneshwar.
Orissa instantly reminds me of Goa. Except instead of booze shops at every turn, this place has temples.
However work, being my chosen mode of worship, necessitates that I enter one for research.
I bypass the temple that humans actually frequent (Lingaraj - beautiful I'm told but not open to non-Hindus, which most of my shooting crew will be) and choose instead to visit the Rajarani Temple.
It takes my breath away. Small, unpretentious, clean and absolutely unloved.
Considering the affection that Oriyas have for temples, I'm quite surprised to find that the only people visiting are the ones in the photograph above. College girls tying rakhis on boys that they really want to drag into the empty sanctum sanctorum and bang the brains out of.
The place is unbearably spotless for the rakhi-brigade so they leave behind all their plastic filth.
So far, I've been a silent witness to their mating rituals. But now I begin to chase them down the long pathway to the gate. By the time I've caught up, I've realised that I'm the outsider and that righteous rage would no go down well with these hygienically-challenged youths.
I put on my most frightening friendly face and walk up to the least ferocious looking young lady of them all.
As I begin my moral lecture on cleanliness & the importance of respecting ones heritage, I start to feel the full weight of my age. I am newbie adult, just entering my 30s. As the young lady mutters, "We are sorry ma'am," I feel myself shriveling up right before her eyes.
Still, I'm grateful. If this were Delhi, they'd've told me to shove my Gandhian morals where the sun don't shine.
I like Cuttack because it has a river. When I'm lost & stop to ask for directions, the pretty ladies smile at me and help me get a rickshaw.
The language barrier is beginning to exhaust me. I am far less patient with the people here than they are with me and I realise I'm a terrible Delhi snob.
I am going from store to store on Naya Sadak looking for artisans who make filigree jewelery. I am told to visit the home of a Mr. John Ashok. He turns out to be a Mr. Jan Ashok.
As I sip from the bottle of Slice she has bullied her daughter-in-law into getting me, she proceeds to list out all her medical ailments to me in Oriya.
When she sticks the underside of her foot in my face, I decide to summon up some hybrid of Bengali & Oriya and squeak: "Aami Oriya jaani na!"
The road to the Satpada side of the Chilika lake is my first real brush with the rural countryside. I bless my stars that I have come during the monsoons. Wet, green paddy fields roll by, wet forests roll by, wet goats roll by. It is all too beautiful. I am excited to see the Irawaddy dolphins.
I do not see the dolphins. Two of the saat (seven) podas (villages) are feuding. All boating operations have temporarily been suspended. Perhaps out of fear that one village might send out nuclear subs to sink the other's boat.
I have driven 3 hours and over 100 kilometers for a whole bunch of nothing. Well, not nothing. There's always this:
Puri is not my scene. The temple is to be avoided by a mile. The beaches are crowded and littered with broken bottle shards. Sad, because the ocean is simply magnificent.
Like a sniffer dog sniffs out cocaine, I invariably manage to locate the disgruntled & the dispossessed wherever I go. The beach at Puri is no different.
Soon a handbag seller is asking me how much I earn in Delhi, explaining how he never became a constable (despite being a graduate) because he refused to pay a Rs. 50 bribe. Further down the beach, I befriend a bunch of photographers who take snaps of tourists lolling on the beach, only to sell them back to their subjects. The photographers tell me about the dismal state of unemployment and how apathetic the government is to, well, just about everything.
Dismayed and dejected, I drag my feet through the heavy sand and get out of Puri as fast as I can.
Just as there is Good to fight Evil and Dexter to neutralize pedophiles, there is Chandrabhaga to quell the distaste that Puri leaves in my mouth.
En route to Konark, one chances upon this stretch of untouched beach almost out of nowhere.
The driver is confused by my excitement & pressing need to stop in the middle of the road. "There's nothing here, madam," he says. Precisely.
A deep sense of sadness - loneliness maybe? - grips me suddenly. I am experiencing untold beauty. With no one to share it with.
Yes, yes, beautiful temple. Startling triumph of architecture, geometry, astronomy, art blah blah blah.
But have you met Mr. Santan Beura, local guide? No? Please do:
"Please see madam, polygamy."
"Please see madam, lesbian lowe."
"So sad madam, you have come alone. No point of seeing all this."
Still, driving through the roads lined with thick forests, I can't squash the irrational fear inside me. What if someone jumps out of that thicket with an AK47? In the next instant, I am completely ashamed of myself. Of course not, you idiot.
So it's interesting when the next evening I am introduced to Vijuda (name changed). He is a Black Cat commando & a CRPF man. Warm, extroverted & surprisingly talkative. He has served as the bodyguard of Rajiv Gandhi & KPS Gill. He has been part of the team that responded to the 2002 Akshardham attack. He was stationed in Manipur & Punjab at the height of the insurgency. His friend & fellow soldier was killed at Dantewada.
15 minutes into our conversation and he makes sure to nip my hero-worship in the bud. He is completely devoid of any nationalist fervour. He has put his life on the line several, several times. But not for some lofty notion of 'India' or The Nation. It's a job, he does it.
Warming up, he speaks of 'reality'. Of how villagers in Maoist-infested areas are terrorised routinely by the armed forces. He does not absolve himself of the guilt of killing innocents even though he was 'under orders' (pre-emptive murders of youths to prevent recruitment into terror groups). He speaks fondly of many ugravaadis, who after 'office-hours' are the same as him. Fighting because they were told to.
I sit there talking to a man who admits to have taken numerous lives, many of them innocent. I try not to romanticise the moment but cannot help notice the fire in his eyes as he speaks.
His 'service to the nation' has rendered him barely human in his own eyes.
I leave knowing at least part of the answer to the question: "What happens in Orissa?"
A lot does. Silently. Away from the disinterested government machinery, in the villages and the tribal nooks & forgotten crannies.
It's a place of incredible, unspoiled beauty and that makes up for the horrid flight back home.
The Delhi snobbery is rubbed out of me partly by my experiences over the week and partly by the 20 minute wait at the baggage-pick up's conveyor belt, where the same blue mailbag is going continuously round & round & round.