I started the day off by posting up at a cafe down the street from my guesthouse- Cafe Budan. I didn’t have much of a clue what I was actually going to research so I used the free wifi on offer to read up on some academic papers to try and develop a theoretical framework for my thesis. The menu in this place was pretty western- Indian filtered coffee was replaced by espressos and cappuccinos, while gluten-free cakes and chocolate croissants lined the pastry display in the front. It definitely appeared as though they were catering to a particular kind of customer and I probably wasn’t it. The guys working the counter spoke English really well and treated most of the foreigners who came in with a warm familiarity which led me to believe they were regulars. When I walked in, there wasn’t a single Indian customer in sight. A group of foreigners who spoke English with some sort of European accent sat on one of the tables outside. Beside me sat two Thai men: one dressed as a monk and the other in plain clothes. The monk was counting prayer beads on a string with his hand while conversing with his friend. Across from them a picture of the Dalai Lama hung high on the cafe wall. I thought that the monk might be on some sort of spiritual pilgrimage or perhaps he lived here now. The place had a distinct international flavour to it, as did the entire town- you could easily forget that you were in fact in India. An older foreign man was sitting outside, with a rolled cigarette in his hand, talking to one of the guys who worked in the cafe. A few of the people walking by shook hands with the cafe workers lounging out front. There was certainly an aura of community about the place.
I had been to Mcleodganj nearly a decade ago with my older brother when we taught English as volunteers and did odd jobs at the vegan cafe and restaurant we were based out of. I was sad to see the owners had since sold the place on, and that the incredibly friendly Tibetan who ran the place for them, who became our friend and helped us out immensely, was no longer there. The few narrow streets that make up the town seem ill-equipped to deal with the influx of traffic to the region. Cars, taxis, rickshaws, bikes, and scooters seem to pass by in an endless stream, leaving little room for foot traffic. This was a far cry from the last time I was here when a car passing by was something of a rarity. As I followed one of the tapering streets down to the main square. I saw something incredible…Pizza Hut! I resisted the urge to indulge mainly because I’m quite poor right now and need to save my funds for the necessities aka beer. I guess the place was getting somewhat globalized the last time I was here, but nothing like this.
The streets were more crowded now than I remembered. There was hardly a moments silence and the air was filled with car horns blaring, engines roaring, and hordes of stray dogs barking. There were a lot more Indian tourists walking the streets than the last time I was here. The language was a bit of an issue in some places. My Hindi was extremely basic and learned from Bollywood movies I had watched when I was around 10. In Kerala, where my family is from, the main language is Malayalam and it bears no resemblance to Hindi, which is what most people speak in North India. North India is like a different country to the south, and Mcleodganj still yet another. I honestly felt a bit like an alien today. An Indian, who grew up in Dubai, moved to Canada, worked in Korea, who was now here doing fieldwork for his masters in the Netherlands, with no real idea of what he is actually doing. I felt more apprehensive trying to engage with strangers here than I did in Holland or Canada. It was also the first time I was somewhere new just totally on my own.
So I did what any upstanding person would in the circumstances. I ducked into the nearest bar/ restaurant to get a big bottle of Kingfisher beer- the perfect lubricant for these kinds of situations. I told myself I was just going in there to jot down some notes and since they had beer, the only logical thing to do was to have one. At the table beside me sat a Tibetan family made up of what looked like the grandparents, parents, and child. The young boy was speaking English with a North American accent. I wondered if they were a family that had once lived here and then moved on to ‘the promised land’ of the good ol’ US of A. I was still struggling to pin down something really new or interesting that I could say. I thought about analysing the town using a concept we had learned in our class on mobility: Auge’s concept of places and non-places. Was this just a place where mobilities passed through one another on the way to somewhere else- some kind of liminal space? Or was there something more fixed about it? What kind of threads came to be entangled here and what did the whole mess really look like?
With a little liquid courage, I finally worked up the nerve to ask the family beside me where they were from. The lady at the table replied that her parents had moved here from Tibet, when they lost their country and that she herself had moved on to San Francisco around 6 years ago. She said she was back here to visit her family. I was an idiot, though, because I didn’t push the conversation further and ask her what I really wanted to know: did this place feel like home to her? I still needed to warm up my ability to interview strangers. The questions didn’t seem to form in my mouth because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. I remembered a quote from Lincoln above my seat on the train from Calicut to Kochi on my way here: “A goal properly set is halfway reached.” Mine was evidently not yet properly set. I’m not usually one for inspiring quotations but I think Abe was onto something there.
I walked town temple road to the main Tibetan temple in the town, hoping for some divine inspiration. The place was definitely calming. It was being prepared for a conference directed towards the Dalai Lama, wherein he would listen to different members of the scientific community who would present their findings to him. I had met someone on the plane, on the way here who worked for the NGO that was organizing the conference and ran into him again at the temple. The temple was brimming with tourists, both Indian and foreign, snapping away their selfies, as well as the monks that populated it. I spent a few moments hypnotized by the turning prayer wheels with the mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum, inscribed on them. The temple and the town itself felt a bit sleepy, maybe it was the fact that today was the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising day. I myself felt a bit sleepy and decided to make my way back to the guest house for a nap.