He had to sleep next to burning bodies in Varanasi; in Dibrugarh people ran away in panic seeing him; in Bihar, eunuchs showed him their genitals, and in Delhi he was beaten up by the cops... and then love blossoms thousands of feet above the Atlantic ...
Zurich, Switzerland; April 13, 2020
"U wont believe what happened to me after I left yr Homestay. It was a mad crazy journey. Home finally!"
That was Leandro S. Bodmer on Facebook messenger texting me from the comforts of his mother's apartment in Zurich, the nerve center of Swiss banks. Nearly a month ago, he had been my guest at Homestay by the Tea Garden, Dibrugarh.
"Great to hear from u, dude! Happy u r home!" I wrote back.
"And yes, curious to know what happened. Tell all!" I added.
"Big long story," he responded, then going on to send me a series of messages recounting a journey so bizarre, so unbelievable that it was surreal.
"Oh my gaud!" I sighed at last, letting out a deep breath, the full weight of the loaded saga not just drooping my back, but rendering me speechless too. It also left me exhausted as if it was me and not him who undertook this epic journey across a lockdowned India.
"I never been spiritual or religious," Leandro texted at the end of it all, "but today I am very sure that the Hindu god’s or the universe or whatever was taking care of me."
Dibrugarh (Assam), India; March 10, 2020
At about 10.30 am when this white young male showed up at our Homestay, I didn't really rush out to welcome him with open arms. The corona virus, yet to be officially named COVID 19, was rolling on its crooked spikes across the world - especially the White World (Italy, Spain, France, The US, The UK), and any foreigner might just be a carrier. All of 6 feet in height with a metre of Lord Shiva dreadlocks for crowning glory, the backpacker didn't quite seem right, especially in these uncertain, suspicious environment.
I did a quick check.
How long had he been in India?
Where all did he travel to?
The first month in North India, the second in West, the southern coast on his third, and now on the fourth month, the North East.
Majuli island. Done.
Destination next: Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland.
How long would he stay?
Unsure. Depended on how the situation panned out.
"My rooms are for Rs 2500, 3000, 3500 like that..."
"No, my friend," said Leandro who turned out to be a Swiss national.
"Can you come down, please? The situation is getting worse and I wonder if Arunachal is issuing ILPs (Inner Line Permits) to foreigners now. I may have to stay in Dibrugarh for a long time."
He striked me as the type who opens doors for women or helps a blind man cross the street. Soft spoken, pleasant and composed, his manners were mild and measured, a gentle giant, who must be in his twenties. And nearly stranded.
"So how much will you be comfortable in?"
"I know it's less, but can you do this for Rs 1300 a night?"
"Make it Rs 1500, ok," I said and offered my personal favourite, the Pink Room that affords a high definition 4K view of the sprawling tea garden over a writing desk. It's a room I often use as my workspace, and on rainy nights as a sleeping pad, the patter patter on the tin roof lulling me into a delicious dream theatre.
Passport scanned, I settled him down.
A while later, I went downstairs to find a mother fuming with rage.
"Why are you keeping foreigners now? What will people say!" she protested.
I noticed that she was more worried about what 'people will say' rather than the disease.
"Relax ma, he has been in India for the last three months! It's not like he flew in yesterday from Europe..." I assured her.
By midday Leandro S. Bodmer asked for a bicycle. We had one at our Homestay, but the paddle was broken.
"I can give you my scooter...It's old though!"
"But I don't know to how to ride one... I guess I will walk."
"Where do you wanna go?"
"To the lake!"
"There is one somewhere near that side," he said pointing towards the far right end of the tea garden.
"I have never heard of any lakes there!"
"But it's there, you see," he insisted, showing me a large irregular shaped area marked in blue as a waterbody on Google Map.
"All right," I said doubtfully. "Good luck!"
"And oh, just a bit of advice," I said, before he left with a bottle of water and a backpack. "Just don't roam around too much, ok. People here are a little cagey about foreigners now."
He nodded. But how could one confine a young adult explorer! Leandro continued his jaunts around town every day, my advice happily ignored.
But he was soon to experience what my apprehensions were all about.
"People here seem unfriendly," he told me one day after returning from the Main Market.
"Why do you say?"
"They are just giving me the stares! Angry stares, you know," he said. "Whenever I ask for directions, they almost run away without responding. Like I offended them! Like I have fowl breath!"
This unfriendly attitude became more obvious when he went to a neighbourhood store to pick up a deo. The moment he stepped in, all the customers inside the shop freaked out and made a mad dash towards the exit, as if they had just seen a ghost.
It was my time to score.
"I told you! I told you to lie low. Folks are very wary of foreigners now. If my neighbours complain about your presence here, I won't be able to keep you."
Over the days, however, the guy grew on me. He was sweet, he was quiet, and I just loved his English which was German accented, and his manners which were like that of an old world British gentleman complete with an umbrella and a hat.
One day he went out and returned with pasta, tomato puree, cooked and fed everyone. He would also spend hours playing chess with our cook, equally young, and I observed they shared a great rapo despite their massive differences in backgrounds. Younger you are, less class conscious you are, I thought!
Sometimes he looked down and out.
"All good, bro?"
"Feeling helpless," he said, adding that the feeling of being stranded-in is slowly sinking in. "I've absolutely no idea where I go from here..."
His morning outing, however, continued.
"Where today?" I asked.
"Oh you found it?"
"No, but I'll take a different route today...."
"Well, let me know when you find it. I will add it to the list of itinerary I offer my guests."
Evenings were all about EDM, mostly German Techno, on his JBL bluetooth speaker. Mostly in his room, he would be busy researching escape routes and the way forward on his MacBook Air, even as I, passing by, would overhear him speaking over the phone.
Not that I uncovered any secrets. I do not understand German.
My favourite pink room, meanwhile, started smelling of charas.
Next morning Leandro was out again.
"Lake again??" I laughed, once he was on his way out of our Homestay, bottle and backpack in place.
"Today I will find it for sure!" he said waving his index finger.
It had become our private joke.
For some strange reason, he was bent on finding the lake. And I was eager to help. So I asked a few of my friends from the hood if there was a lake near Maijan side of the Brahmaputra. There was, they said, just an offshoot of the Brahmaputra, but it's overrun by water hyacinth, the weedy virus that sucks dear life out of waterbodies, just so they can survive, and survive alone.
And so I informed my guest once he returned from another failed attempt at discovery. But he didn’t seem convinced. He would rather believe Google maps than locals. So I thought ok, what the hell, let him go, let him explore. That was perhaps his way of time-pass.
"My parents divorced when I was very young. I was brought up by mom," he told me one day over a smoke. "But every weekend I would meet dad."
"So what does he do?"
"He is an engineer," he said.
"Yes, he has tattoos all over the body," our man said with a smile rolling another joint of charas.
India isn't everybody's cup of tea, he uttered after a long silent spell. We were sitting on the terrace under the stars, the tea garden in front a thick dark carpet.
"I love India, and I intend to spend at least six more months here, but she doesn't," he sighed, talking to nobody in particular.
"My girlfriend," he said, waking up from his reverie.
She was here In India with him this whole time till the time they arrived in Varanasi where she reached breaking point. The crazy congestion, the crowd of unwashed masses, the honking horns, the terrifying traffic, the burning bodies, the abominable sense of hygiene, and the spicy food was too overwhelming for her sophisticated Swiss sensibilities. "She just couldn't stomach it. How she hated it! She fell sick!" he sighed.
And flew back home in a rage, leaving him alone. They broke up.
"So are you heart broken?"
"No, nothing like that!" he said, but I could hear the pain in his voice.
One loves India, the other hates it.
"Not my type," he said, as if he had just realised this, with a tone of finality.
Obviously his love for India was greater than his love for his romantic interest. That left him to cover the rest of the country alone.
India over, it would be Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand next on Leandro's itinerary.
"I plan to spend at least three years in Asia."
"You can afford to do that for so long without working?" I was curious.
"Sure. I have been working since I was 16! And I have saved enough to last me that long!"
"How come you started working so early?"
"In Switzerland you can work early on any particular area of your interest. I didn't want to go for higher education, but I like machines and I learnt machines and all that shit and that's how I be an engineer..."
It had been five days of uncertain existence now. Arunachal Pradesh had just closed its borders for foreigners and so had Nagaland.
"Maybe I should go to Manipur now," he said.
"Why suddenly Manipur?"
"Oh, I believe there is a lake there in the state capital Imphal!"
A guest from Imphal had just checked in at our Homestay and our Leandro got chatting with him. That's how he learnt. So, destination next: Imphal.
"And dude, how was your day?" I asked bumping onto him one evening.
"Great! I managed to get bus tickets!"
"No, to Guwahati..."
"But you said you wanted to go to Imphal?"
"Yeah, but I thought going all the way and not finding any lakes there..." he said innocently.
"Ha, ha, ha, ha," I couldn’t resist laughing out loud at the absurdity.
Doubting the existence of Loktak lake, one of the most famous and spectacular natural wonders of the world, is like doubting the existence of the Pyramids in Egypt.
But then you can't blame him, you know.
He had been supremely unsuccessful finding his lake in Dibrugarh!
"Maybe from Guwahati I will go to Meghalaya now..." he wondered aloud.
Oh, he was leaving finally! It sank in the moment our manager drove off with him. A part of my daily routine, Leandro had become a habit, his exit leaving me with withdrawal syndromes.
At Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC) bus terminus from where he was to Volvo his way through the night to Guwahati, he met three Americans, all in similar predicament, naturally taking hardly any time to be friends. More so when all shared a similar skin colour, a love for India and of course, charas.
At 8.30 pm, four white-skinned passengers stepped into the luxury coach with 18 local passengers who suddenly fell silent, frightened sick at the prospect of travelling for eight hours with these foreigners, all possible carriers of Corona, in the confined air conditioned environment of the coach.
"Rchd Guwahati!" he messaged me on Facebook Messenger the morning next.
I keyed in a yellow thumbs up in response.
He managed to check-in at a homestay in Guwahati.
"How was Meghalaya?" I texted him a few days later.
Nope, he texted back. "It didn't happen!"
The state that thrives on tourism courtesy the root bridges, sacred forests, and Mawsynram, the wettest place on the planet, had also sealed its borders for tourists.
Somewhere in Bihar, onboard Dwarka Express, March 20-21, 2020
It was the most 'intense' train journey Leandro had ever made. "And I have done several train journeys in India," he asserted.
Unable to get a ticket for the AC coach, he booked a second class berth in the last inter-state train leaving Guwahati before Lockdown. Inside, there were people, just too many people, stuffed in like sardines, a horrid smell emanating from everywhere. None of the passengers were wearing masks, as they spat "something red" on the corners of the compartment. Babies were shitting right inside, even as grown-ups released odious gas, loud and clear, unashamed, unapologetic. Stinking of rotten food, urine, vomit, sweat and faeces, it was so nauseating that Leandro spent most of his time standing on the doors of the coach for fresh air.
As the garbage bin with iron wheels ran along the badlands of Bihar, he was in for more disturbing encounters. He was perhaps the most hygiene conscious guy onboard, but that didn't stop his fellow passengers from treating him like dirt. He was either shoved around or avoided like the plague. Thanks to his height and his massive frame, he stood his ground. But again that was not enough to stop the whackos from harassing him.
One night, in his sleep, he felt someone pulling his T shirt. He woke up with a start to find a boy pleading: "Money, money. Give!"
"I just looked at him for a few seconds and then had to look away," he recalled. Half his face was missing.
He also talked about kids who crawled their way on their bellies along the train aisle, begging. They had no limbs. They had no wheelchairs.
The Hizras (eunuchs) were next, rubbing their boobs and their crotch against his body. They also demand money and when he refused, they would pull up their sarees to reveal their genitals or whatever they had amidst a thick bushy growth. And then there were those 'uncle-types' with dubious sexual orientation, sitting next to him, their hands inching towards his groin...
Good mornings came with great views: A line of human bottoms each releasing digested discards.
He also met a few Indian Army guys on their way to Saudi Arabia. "And I was like the whole world is calling their citizens back home over the Corona crisis and India is still sending soldiers to Saudi!!"
It took him another train ride, followed by a ride on a truck, a taxi, a bus and an auto rickshaw to arrive at his destination finally.
That, after almost 90 hours from the time his train left Guwahati railway station.
Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), India, March 23, 2020
They might be drinking madira out of human skulls, their homes right there where the dead lived. But away from civil society's mainframe, these Aghori Sadhus, these 'weirdoes' were the ones who turned out to be more humane than the homo sapiens of the lockdowned planet.
That's what Leandro started to believe after his tryst with both sides of the world.
Leandro knew Varanasi well. He and his girlfriend had stayed there for a month in the beginning of their India tour. The seat of Hindu mysticism was also remarkable for a personal reason. That was the place where his girlfriend reached breaking point overwhelmed by the madness that was India and flew away in a rage, leaving him alone. But her loss was more than compensated by the number of friends he made in the holy city. Precisely why, assured by their presence, he dared the arduous journey from Guwahati to be at Varanasi, a place he thought would be a safe haven to survive the lockdown.
He had little idea then that his trust was totally misplaced.
Sure he was taken in by the owner of the Homestay where he had stayed earlier. Few nights later, however, he was told that following lockdown regulation, the guesthouse would be closed. Leandro had been the lone guest there. The owner, thankfully, sent him to a hotel where he was able to check in.
Only for a night. Next day he was out on the streets.
"Where should I go now! I left the hotel with not a clue!" he said. He went to several other hotels and guesthouses.
And lost count of the number of times he heard a particular word that day.
The word was 'sorry".
Lost, tired and thirsty, he ambled on aimlessly and bumped onto a German couple ambling aimlessly, lost, tired and thirsty. The cops had been hollering at them to 'go back to their rooms'. Only that they had no rooms to go to.
They 'joined forces' to visit a police station for help and guidance. A curfew like situation with no one but only men in mufti on the streets, weaponry in place, all shops shut, Varanasi seemed like a place ready for war.
But it took just three unarmed firings to scare the shit out of UP’s cowboy police. There was complete panic the moment they stepped inside the police station compound. In Leandro's own words: "At the station all the police mans were very afraid of us, gave us hits with their sticks and literally said: Go anywhere but not here, go back to your country!"
Whatever happened to Incredible India's "Tithe deva behave!"
Far from being guided, they were beaten, they were shouted out. Why, just a few weeks ago they were treated like royalty wherever they went!
The trio sat under a banyan tree, catching their breath, trying to make sense of their sticky situation.
"Wait! I know a place," exclaimed the fairer half of the German couple suddenly. "Follow me," she urged.
Leandro followed, spring on his steps now, delighted by the possibility of finding a place to stay the night. The main road suddenly narrowed down to a dark kuccha lane meandering towards God knows where! Shadowy silhouettes of giant trees stood like agents of evil. A while later, some distance away, he spotted fire raging across an open area. Not just at one place but in five different spots. Was that a holiday resort? Were those bonfires?
As he advanced closer to the area, it hit him hard.
They were at a Hindu cremation ground; the bonfires actually pyres where the dead disappeared into ashes.
"Wait here," the fairer half instructed the other two. She walked ahead and striked a conversation with the babas hanging about with their chillums.
The woman returned.
"Sorted. We are going to say here tonight!"
Leandro's mouth fell open, but he had no choice.
They were taken in, even as Leandro reconciled with the idea of staying in a shamshan ghat. Only to be touched soon after by the kindness and hospitality of the babas. "People say crazy things about them. That they feed on human flesh and dance naked at midnight as part of Tantric rituals," he said.
"But it was them who have almost nothing and are living on the streets helped us rich tourists," he added. They provided the trio shelter, blankets to sleep, water and even cooked them dal and rotis for dinner.
He spent the next three nights literally sleeping not too far away from where the bodies burnt.
By day, they would hide inside temple premises. Why temples? "Because cops don't enter temples," he explained.
Enough was enough. With none of his 'friends' helping, he could not be carrying on like this. It was better to be home, he realised, than be in a hostile India.
On day four, he made his way to a Swiss educational institute in Varanasi. The officials there were kind enough to arrange a driver and a car which took him to the airport. Leandro was flying off to Delhi.
Thousands of feet up above the sky, he, however, had no idea that down below, a reverse migration was happening: Hordes of migrant workers and their families were limping their way from Delhi NCR to their village homes in UP and Haryana hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Hungry. Thirsty. Bruised.
It was the great Lockdown exodus.
German Embassy, New Delhi; 5.30 pm. April 1, 2020
A loud cheer ricocheted across the chandeliered hall of the Chanakyapuri residence of the German Ambassador to India. His Excellency had just made an announcement that was going to be a life-saver for those present.
The congregation wasn't like any other regular group of people that get together in embassy evenings. No diamond-dripping fashioniestas in Gucci gowns. No Fab India flaunting culture vultures and big-bindi-ed social activists. There were no wine goblets tinkling, no gourmet buffet laid out. And there were no Mercs and Bentleys on the road outside the ambassadorial residence.
The crowd was, in fact, a rag-tag bunch of German backpackers, all stuck in different corners of India when lockdown was announced. In chappals, Crocs, torn jeans, harem pants and Tees, some ponytailed, others tattooed, these helpless tourists had managed to arrive in New Delhi and were now desperate to get out of the country. No longer pampered or sought after, beaten by police, and abhorred by the locals as white pariahs, they were literally chucked out of the hotels and Air BNBs. Of course, they looked out of place in the silk-curtained hall embellished by massive art works in gold- gilded frames.
Everyone had their harrowing stories to share. A once-in-a-lifetime India holiday gone horribly wrong. Everyone was on the same boat. Mercifully, everyone would be on the same plane soon.
They hugged each other, some broke into tears, some looked on in disbelief at this unexpected good news the German Ambassador had just delivered.
Standing quietly among them was one fine young man with dreadlocks. The dreadlocks belonged to Leandro.
Yes, he was finally going home too!
At 3.30 am the following morning, a massive chartered Lufthansa Boeing 787 took off into the dark skies. The blue blinkers along the runway of Indira Gandhi International Airport became smaller and smaller until they disappeared into the night.
On board were 289 Germans. Plus a Swiss national, Leandro S. Bodmer.
"I was really lucky to have got this passage," he said. He had a reason to say so.
It was the last international flight out from IGI airport before it shut itself down from the world.
Somewhere 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, April 2-3, 2020
"Hi," Leandro greeted the young pretty flight attendant, as he stood waiting for the rear toilet to be vacant.
"Hi," the flight attendant, tidying up a food trolley, responded.
The guy inside the loo was taking too long a time! They looked at each other and shared a smile over it.
That, however, gave them enough time to chat up. Leandro learnt that she was from Munich; that it was her last flight before being quarantined at her home town, and that she planned to paint during this period. Leandro, on his part, shared the good, bad, ugly side of his India travels. He also told her something that made her face brighten up. She shook his hands and then gave him a hug too.
The door finally opened and Leandro disappeared into the loo, while the attendant went into the cockpit to whisper something on the pilot's ears. The captain nodded.
About seven hours after the loo-break encounter, the aircraft speakers crackled. With a Champagne flute in her hand and a fork in another, the flight attended he spoke to earlier ting-ting-tinged the glass. "Hallo everyone," she addressed the passengers in German. "We are 4 hours and 30 minutes away from our destination. As you can see it on your monitors, we are just about reaching the other end of the Atlantic. And here I would like to make an important announcement."
The seatbelt signs were off and most passengers were sleeping. The ones awake were either reading, watching movies or playing games. Leandro was in the middle of a solving a puzzle on the phone. The announcement, however, had everyone alert. Leandro also had his ears up.
"We have here a Swiss passenger from Zurich. His name is Leandro S. Bodmer..."
What the hell! Shocked to hear his own name, his heart started beating! What had he done? Anything wrong??
"I am happy to announce that," the voice on the speakers continued, "there is going to be a round of Champagne for all passengers on behalf of the Lufthansa crew in his honour...."
Leandro's face turned crimson - half awkward, half blushing, half amused. He instantly knew what this was all about.
No sooner than the announcement was made, everyone got up from their seats, happy beaming faces all across the length of the aircraft. A loud cheer followed, as they clapped and sang...
Leandro lifted his tall frame up from the cramped window seat and waved his hand in acknowledgment at everyone, blushing like a blueberry.
Five minutes later trollies were rolling forward the aisle, Champagne served seat by seat.
The flight attendant who he spoke to earlier passed by and winked at him.
The Captain also stepped out of the cockpit to walk up to his seat and shook his hand.
It was Leandro's 24th birthday.
Frankfurt, Germany, April 3, 2020
Matching German precision engineering, the last train from Frankfurt to Zurich before closing down rail services entirely arrived at the platform with German sense of precision timing: 7:49 am.
In a train that usually carried 1000 passengers across the Swiss-German border, today it had just 7 fagged out souls onboard, Leandro among them.
Just a little while ago he had landed at one of the busiest airports in the world, now eerily quiet, so quiet that he could hear his own footsteps. With not a soul around, all shops and bars and restaurants were closed, no announcements over PAS heard, the ambience low on lighting, all monitors blank, displaying no information. With no flight services, there was no info to give.
Finding the exit route to the train terminal through the labyrinthine maze of corridors and passageways that made this sprawling airport had never been easy for Leandro. "I am here at this airport so many times, but I always have a hard time finding way," he said.
But this time he had nothing to be confused about. Wheeling a red strolley, in a deep blue uniform, he had by his side someone who knew the airport like how! It was the flight attended he chatted with near the plane toilet. To whom Leandro had casually mentioned that it was his birth day! And who very publicly announced his special day mid-flight.
Her name, Samantha Sonowal.
The surname sounded familiar.
A strong gust of wind slapped their faces as the two young people stepped out of the airport. One of the most boring cities in the world, Frankfurt had become even more dreary, cold and gray. Nobody on the roads, no vehicles, no cabs and cops, a ghost town! Germany was locked down too.
"You can come and stay with me in my hotel if you like," Samantha suggested.
"Thank you very much, but my mom is waiting. I should be home," he politely declined an invitation with tempting possibilities.
They stood there looking at each other for a while like it happened in movies, then hugged before taking their separate ways, she high-heeling her way to the airline bus, he towards the railways station nearby.
Home was just three hours away.
"You said her surname is Sonowal," I said unable to contain my curiosity. "That sounds like an Assamese surname! Assam's chief minister is a Sonowal!"
"You won't believe this really," Leandro said. "Yes, she is an Assamese, half Assamese, and her father is from, can you beat this, Dibrugarh!!"
Zurich, Switzerland, April 21, 2020
"Hi Nish, how are you? How are things in Dibrugarh?" that was Leandro on FB messenger again, a week after we last chatted.
"Hey, we are good so far. We are in a Green Zone. What about you?"
"Here in Zurich, life is normal, but not as normal as it should be. People are out on the streets and there r vehicles too, and malls and bars and restaurants open."
We went on chatting for a while as he gave me a quick lowdown on his life.
He was still at his mother's place.
He was still looking for a room for himself in Zurich.
He was yet to hunt for a new job.
Nah, he wasn't smoking-up at all.
He had chopped off his dreadlocks. Someone told him to.
He was missing India a lot. Would be back as soon as this was all over.
Oh yes, he said he was coming to Dibrugarh first.
"Dibrugarh? What's here for you? You couldn't even find the lake!" I teased.
"But I found someone from your town!" he sent a smiley. "I am coming with Samantha! She wants to visit her grandparents!"
I broke into a broad grin. A lot seemed to have happened since their farewell at Frankfurt.
(Nishiraj A. Baruah is a Goa-based lifestyle journalist who now runs Homestay by the Tea Garden in Dibrugarh, Assam)