I had heard many an anecdote about the rest of India wondering about the existence of places in North-eastern India. I in my ignorance about the knowledge of ‘mainland’ Indians thought them to be concocted ones. How could an educated citizen not be aware of the existence of not only a capital city but also of a whole state?
On a rainy Independence Day – 15 August 2001, I accompanied by my brother took the early morning train from Bhopal to Sanchi. My brother was downcast seeing the overcast skies. His photographs might not turn out well and the rain could damage his equipment. I was excited with the prospect of seeing the pictures from my school history books come to life. Braving the rain, minus an umbrella we made it to the ticket window.
The elderly gentleman behind the grilled window looked at me through his thick rimmed glasses and enquired in English, “Where have you come from?” “Shillong,” I replied. He handed me two tickets and asked for a price many times higher than the displayed entry fee. “Shouldn’t it be Rs. 20 for two tickets?” I asked. “Can’t you read the board outside? The rates for foreigners are higher,” the ticket seller growled.
“Par hum to Indian hain? (But we are Indians),” I protested in Hindi. “Hindi seekh lene se koi Indian nahin ho jata! (Learning Hindi doesn’t make one an Indian)” came the smart reply. At this point by brother brandished his Government of India identity card. “But you said you are from Ceylon?” the man asked apologetically.
“Shillong not Ceylon!”
“Woh kahan hain? (Where’s that)”
“Woh kahan hain?”
“Assam ke paas (Near the state of Assam)”
“To bolo na Assam se ho, kab se Ceylon, Ceylon kya kar rahe ho (Then why don’t you say you’re from Assam, why are you saying Shillong, Shillong).”
“No arguments,” I thought.
This was just the beginning of my encounters with my geographically challenged fellow citizens. And I felt grateful to that pavement vendor in Bilaspur who on discovering my hometown exclaimed, “Lovely hill station. I would like to visit it sometime, once I save enough money.”