One of the one percent in 13 million.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Sitting quietly, he is having masala chai. The Delhi Walla meets Leonid Plotkin, 40, at the Madan Café & Restaurant in Paharganj, a district in Central Delhi popular among backpackers for inexpensive hotels and eateries.
Mr Plotkin orders another glass of tea for me. We are enveloped in the late evening darkness. Our table is placed just beside the Main Bazaar’s chief avenue.
“Very elegant,” I say, pointing at the ring on Mr Plotkin’s finger.
“These are two rings,” he says. “This is from Turkey and this is from Guatemala.”
Mr Plotkin is a traveller and a photographer. He arrived a day ago from New York.
“Although New York is my city, I don’t keep a house there,” he says. “I’m always travelling.”
Mr Plotkin’s parents had migrated to the US from Russia. They lived in St Petersberg.
“Ah, the city of Anna Karenina,” I say.
“Tolstoy,” he says. “I’m also fond of Dostoevsky and Chekov.”
In June 2010, Mr Plotkin went to Kedarnath, the pilgrim town consecrated by a temple that shelters one of the 12 jyotirlingas of the Hindu god Shiv. “I walked up all the way from Gaurikund carrying my backpack and Nikon D300,” he says, referring to a point in the journey where the motorable road ends. The 14km-long Himalayan trek is in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand. It snakes up through the mountains; the river Mandakini its constant companion. While some pilgrims walk, others ride on mules, and many others ride on the backs of coolies.
“I’m interested in the idea of pilgrimage, a tradition that has been going on from ancient times,” Mr Plotkin says. “I’m also fascinated by the travelling sadhus who stay in different holy places at different times of the year. Once I walked with Sufi ascetics from the dargah of Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Kaki in Delhi to the dargah of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz in Ajmer (Rajasthan).”
The journey to Kedarnath was different from what Mr Plotkin had imagined. “I saw so many people going in helicopters. That came as a surprise. Though the exteriors of our traditions might change with time, their meanings remain the same. A particularly poignant memory of my trek relates to hundreds of people who were walking like me. Most of them were old and not accustomed to the mountains and its fiercely cold weather. You could see that their bodies were suffering from the harshness of the journey. Still, they looked joyful. I suppose that is the point of a pilgrimage. A part of it should be difficult…it must require some sort of physical and mental exertion to reach a goal.”
In June 2013, the flash floods caused by early rains washed away hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in Uttarakhand and damaged the Kedarnath shrine. The temple town, the epicentre of the disaster, has become a staging area for mass cremations. Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna has been reported by the media as saying, “We will never know the exact number of those dead and the number of people who have been buried or washed away.” In the villages and towns of the plains, families are hoping against hope as they wait for their missing loved ones to return home.
“I have a personal connection with Kedarnath,” says Mr Plotkin. “I made friendships with a number of sadhus who visit it every summer. I became close to one of them. Govind Giri was a great guy. He was very hospitable, very kind and very gentle. I had spent a week in Kedarnath with him. We would walk together. He would take me to some of the higher valleys that lie above the Kedar. I hope he is alive.”
Mr Plotkin is leaving tonight. He plans to make another difficult and dangerous pilgrimage in the mountains. Getting up from the chair, he says, “I’m going to Amarnath.”
[This is the 75th portrait of Mission Delhi project]
A traveller’s tale