India and the longest journey ever undertaken – Part 2

Paresh Shah works for Unitech Engineering.  It’s a company ‘…to solve the corrosion problems’, or so his business card says.  It deals in Advance Engineering, Thermo Plastic Piping Systems.

Paresh Shah also works for God.  Or at least that’s what he was trying to convince me of the morning I came out of the toilet on the train to Mumbai that was nearly 4 hours late and that had enabled me to miss my connection to Delhi and therefore my liaison with Marta Calvo for a New Years knees up in Rishikesh.

After dismissing the likelihood of my intentions to make my train connection with a smirk and a turn on his heels just 5 minutes before, this complete stranger was back to gawp at my ticket.  I could hear his brain whirring.  I could hear a far off ticking.  I think I saw a halo appear above his head.  Whatever was happening, it was about to confirm my faith in the ability of humans to be wonderful, caring, compassionate and full of selflessness.  Paresh Shah opened his mouth…

According to this portly, stout little fellow with a balding palate and a dirty over-worn suit, I was to disembark at the next station, get a taxi to a place called Bolly Wolly station and meet my train there.  ‘Easy as pie’ I said, in my most mocking of tones.  My mind was thinking the following…. ‘Did he say Bolly Wolly’?

It was on the 5th time of asking that i gave up trying to understand the name of that station.  He looked at me like I was taking the rise out of him.  I guess I kinda was…

I stood there bemused as he sauntered off, thinking how can I trust the directions of a man from a country where when you ask directions, generally you end up in another country…?  I thought of the ramifications of alighting my train at a random station at 7.30 a.m, knowing not where I was or how to move on but believing that Bolly Wolly held the answers to my prayers.  Where would i get a taxi?  How much would I be fleeced for?  Does Bolly Wolly even exist?  And what if my train doesn’t go through there?  The possibilities of extreme failure and a life from that moment on of destitution within this country of such things was making my belly do the ache.  We were 5 minutes from the next station.  A decision had to be made.  ‘Shitebags’ I thought.  ‘SHITEBAGS’ I screamed. And then something happened…

Paresh Shah returned.  ‘This is what WE are going to do’ he piped.  ‘WE are going to get off at the next station, WE will get a taxi to Bolly Wolly and We will meet your train there and YOU will get on it’.  ‘Can I snog a strange little Indian man’, I asked my brain?  ‘No, best not to, I need his help’, my brain responded.

So, off we got and away we ran.  ‘We dont have much time’, he shouted over his shoulder, sprinting away from me like Ben Johnson after a good strong dose.  I followed him to the nearest taxi stand, underneath this station in the arse-end of nowhere.  After much haggling, the 1 hour taxi ride was gonna cost us 600 rupees, about 7 pounds and 50 pence.  A little extortionate, I thought (!), but seeing as this man was going out of his way to help me, I decided to pay 500 rupees of the fare.  Only fair…  The driver was a Sikh man.  I was just about to learn exactly what that meant for the future of my seemingly short life…

On a train, in the future, someone would tell me that Sikh’s only care about themselves.  And by that, they didn’t mean themselves and other Sikh’s as a collective, they meant literally, about themselves, ie, the individual.  I was told this by a Sikh.  After my taxi journey experience, I thought, even if only for about 8 seconds, ‘This person must be have had a ride in my taxi drivers car’.  The only thing this driver was missing was a crash helmet, seemingly because it wouldn’t fit over his MONSTER sized turbaned head.  And not cos of his turban but because of the immensely sized ego that couldn’t quite fit in his substantial frame.  And he really didn’t seem to care too much about my or my fellow passengers life, even though my fellow passenger probably had the say as to whether he would go to Sach Khand or not, being the Angel that he was, as time and again we were inches away from an on-coming truck and a gruesome, twisted metal-induced finale!  I saw a white light about 17 times in 45 minutes.  And at one stage, having paid to go through a toll, our driver screwed up his receipt and threw it at the guy in the booth!!  I found this actually pant-wettingly funny and if I wasn’t so petrified for the rest of the journey at my man’s complete lack of care for anything outside of his own aura, would have got his address and sent him a Christmas card… although, he would probably have tracked me down and curve-balled it right between me eyes!

There is a certain awkwardness when you are sat in a car with someone who doesn’t really speak much of your language and, you, absolutely sod all of theirs, but that awkwardness reaches new levels when, petrified at the sight of an on-rushing Rickshaw, you grab the nearest thing to hand that you think may save you from a death of shattered glass and bent steel through the eyeballs and that thing at hand is the slightly damp, sausage like thigh of a strange small Indian man who has saved your bacon.  In a split second, my mind ran through various scenarios, each one pertaining to a different facial expression of apology to this man-angel.  It’s amazing how, when faced with the need for a certain look, the mind will play games with your own consciousness’ desire and make you look like you have just sharted whilst grimacing a ‘lets go to bed look’.  This is exactly what I did when I looked at Paresh Shah in apology at grabbing his Lincolnshire thigh.  If only there was another un-comfortable 30 minutes of our journey left, I internally screamed…

Once we arrived at Bolly Wolly, or Balawali as I realised it was called at our arrival, brown of pants and light of lives, our little Indian Engineering Angel continued his Olympic 100m training routine and shot off into the distance, yelling at me to hurry.  I did, but I was carrying three months of clothes in a huge sack whilst he was carrying only the weight of expectation (and mind you, a gargantuan amount of compassion too).  For a moment, I thought maybe he was trying to escape me, having made an error of judgement and been too nice to say so but not too nice not to leave me stranded at a comically named train station!  But then, I realised he wasn’t.  And that made me feel better and run faster.  But then, what happened next, is just stereotypical of an Indian’s lack of interest in the keeping of time…

It’s been said that animals have a completely different concept to humans regarding the space-time continuum.  I think this refers to Indians too…

We get to a platform.  And before he inquires whether our train has arrived or whether we are even on the right platform, he walks up to a shoeshine and gets a mirror like sheen to his 17-year-old slip-ons!!!  I am standing there, watching the incredulity of this situation, wondering if I am in a twilight zone episode but instead of asking him politely ‘WHAT THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU DOING, MAN’, I start to think of the t.v series Police Squad and then of all the films i have seen where a detective will get his shoes shined whilst asking for information that only these shoe shiny fellas know, like ‘What time does he have his coffee, Frank’? or ‘How many times does he order the Pastrami sandwich…… Frank?’ (for some reason, Frank is the most shoe-shinier name I can think of, even on a station platform in the middle of India).  I also realised something about myself at this situation.  Sometimes, my mind will readily free itself from reality when faced with any degree of the importance of immediate thought as to what to do.  At this moment, rather than ask Mr Shah what the hell we needed to do as a train hit the platform, I was thinking of Grey-suited-trilby’d detectives paying backhanders for info on local gangsters.  Still, I do like the 50’s look of suit and hat and pine in fact for the time when we all have to dress as such once again… hmm!!

Anyways, once we could see our distorted faces in the footwear in discussion, I was politely told we had missed the connection by 5 minutes.  When I looked at how long the shoe shine had taken, it was comically close to 6 minutes.  Indian Angels, I thought, have a strange way of revealing their plumage…

But my trust was still fully locked in to this little man and he proved it to be rightly so when we jumped on another train ten minutes later and found a seat.  By this time, I should have been on my train 6 hours ago so how the hell we were gonna catch it when we hadn’t even reached its original departure point, I had no idea.  But this is another strange thing about India.  You can try to work something out and come to the conclusion that it can’t possibly be so or make sense but somehow it seems to always do so.  And as I am sat trying to work out how to catch up with a train that I am 6 hours behind, within an hour and a half whilst travelling at roughly the same speed, Mr. Shah gets out his personal computer and shows me that in an hour and a half, we will arrive at a station and 45 minutes later, my original train will come through and I will catch it.  And as I wailed in his general direction, with sincere gratefulness and humility, I realised once more that this country will give to you whatever you require if you just show some faith and a li’l love.  ‘Jugad’, I thought.  ‘What a bloody trip’, my mind responded.  ‘What’s Jugad?’ my mother texted me…

And as my station approached, I said my thank you’s to this Angel in disguise… and what a disguise… and hopped off that train.  And as I did so I thought ‘Us humans really should try to invent a new word or phrase that truly expresses gratefulness and thanks in a way that Thank You just doesn’t convey’.  Cos when someone does something so extremely wonderful for you and all you have in way of a retort is Thank You, it just seems so mediocre.  So I have decided I am going to send him a card when I get home to England and maybe even a solid Gold Rolls Royce to express my gratitude.  Or I’ll just post a Thank You card, after all it means the same thing doesn’t it…?!!

That night, on the train to Delhi, it was the first time I had experienced a substantial chill in the air since I landed in this magnificent country.  I was on my top bunk, the prefered amongst most travellers on sleeper trains due to the fact no-one can come and wipe something grim on you whilst you’re asleep.  The fans overhead were off, again a first, a sign that we were heading North to a place where winter actually hits, although the outside temperature still rarely gets below 5 or 6 degrees.  I woke up at one point, pulled my new throw over myself and mused ‘I am heading to the mountains, where at night it may get down to nearly zero degrees and all i have is a rucksack of t-shirts and two long sleeve shirts’.  Sometimes my genius amazes me.

During my train journeys in India, i have regularly used my ‘sack’ as a pillow.  This is cos a) it’s an anti-theft measure and b) i have no pillow.  But my sack isn’t a pillow.  Pillows are filled with Angel’s feathers, nurses smiles and the vibrations of a softly plucked harp.  A rucksack used as a pillow is filled with Mountain ranges, crab claws and the screams of innocent lost children.  A pillow does not my rucksack make…  But needs must and so on this night the Sandman visited and z’s were manifested until at 6 a.m some Satanic preacher turned on the light that was hovering 3 and a half inches from my retinas and that was it, a night’s slumber broken as if made by the finest bone china and attacked by an angry shark, ridden by an Indian tosser!  I guess i did hit the sack at 9, having decided to listen to a song from every album on my mp3 that had an album cover!  Amazing what one will think to do to pass the time on a long journey!

Another thing i do to pass the time here, is use my incredibly MASSIVE I.Q to think upon stuff.  I keep looking at elderly people and musing ‘I wish i knew what they know and how much of this life they know!’  When sadness hits, i tend to wish i was older and therefore have more of the tools to cope with the feelings of maudlin that currently beset me.  Maybe a lot of the people i see, who i think know a lot, know nothing at all!!  But wisdom, if it ever can have a face, which it can’t but I’m gonna try to give it one anyway, has the face of an elderly person staring out a window wistfully at a past that emphasised the true greatness and fullness of life!  In my eyes anyway.  One day, if i am lucky enough to make it that far, i too wish to stare out of a window, a shard of sunlight warming my old bones and wrinkles, wistfully reminiscing about a life that was full and worthy, thinking of all the good times that far outweighed the heartbreak and sadness, that at times threatened to suffocate and destroy and with a wry smile on my face murmur to myself the words ‘Wow, what a bloody journey’.  India is already teaching me to appreciate what i have rather than pine for what i don’t have.  Well, not teaching, but reaffirming that knowledge…

As i head North, India seems to be expressing its poverty trait.  I see people who have set up home in tents, shacks, dwellings that i cant even describe as buildings but that are 4 poles with coconut palm leaves wrapped around them as walls and a piece of old, disintegrating tarpaulin as a roof, living on the edge of railway tracks, along fetid rivers and in the middle of open fields.  It´s insane how little people seem to have here.  It makes me think of people at home who, when they don’t have the latest phone or i-pad, poop themselves and get stressed and think they are falling behind the rest of the World.  ‘People, try having no house, try having to grow and make your own food EVERY DAY, try living right next to a railway track and washing your clothes in a filthy river’!!  These people still have more humility than most of the people i know.  Kind of makes me disappointed in those around me who are sucked into this materialistic wonderland that includes a Helter-Skelter taking you directly to hell!  There are women everywhere doing labouring work, carrying bricks, digging with pick axes, I’ve even seen 4 women carrying concrete railway sleepers, which usually takes 4 strong men to carry.  Here, if something has to be done, it has to be done, no matter the gender, no matter the ability of the person.  Boy, have we got an easy life back home.

Although poverty seems to be everywhere here, it doesn’t take away from the natural beauty of the surroundings.  At times you could be forgiven for mistaking the countryside with England or France.  There are lush green fields, quenched by the recent monsoon rains, rolling hillsides and magnificent specimen trees, the guardians of the nature that flourishes around them.  Whereas the magnificent landscape of the South reminded me of scenes from Apocalypse Now, the North is more All Creatures Great and Small!!  Both are equally beautiful, both make me glad to be alive!

Another thing i have noticed here is that things are never repaired.  Nothing is ever repainted either.  If something starts to fall down or crumble away, it is left until the inevitable happens and it ceases to be what it once was.  It’s a strange phenomenon.  Everywhere, there are buildings that you think are derelict but are actually just as inhabited as you believed they once were.  I guess when food and shelter is paramount, a lick of paint and some bricks and mortar are irrelevant.  But it’s EVERYWHERE.  No-one, it seems, wants to take responsibility, even for their own property or land.  It’s as if they are saying ‘Well, whatever happens, its (one of the) Gods´ will’!  How great it’d be, i keep thinking, to rock up to someones house, fix their collapsed wall or their broken roof and then leave, moving onto the next unsuspecting person (damn you Alan Titchmarsh and your Ground Force team for already doing what i originally thought of just now…!)  Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, send me some cash anyway, i wanna go and help some Indians!!

As i moved on to the outskirts of Delhi, we rolled past a river, that was backed onto by some ‘houses’.  The river was brown, flanked at both sides by litter and was still and stale and stagnant.  And there, amongst the festering murkiness, were women, WASHING THEIR WHITE BED SHEETS!!!  The fetid brown liquid holding the key to their whiter than white linen!!!  It’s no wonder every single person i look at inspires the thought ‘Does ANYONE in India wear clean clothes?’

I reach my alighting point, Hazerat Nizamuddin station, on the outskirts of New Delhi and for once, the train journey i exit from wasn’t a particularly fruitful one in terms of interesting conversation or temporary friendships made.  But it was a long one.  So far, the journey to see Marta Calvo for a New Years knees up had taken me 49 hours.  My next train was due into the station in 2 hours time and i have already become adept at waiting… and waiting… and waiting… which is a good thing as when i board my train for the final 5 hour journey to Haridwar, it sits on the platform for a further hour, delaying my arrival  which again, puts into jeopardy my chances of getting to Rishikesh for New Years Eve!!  But my faith doesn’t wane… until i ask a fellow passenger what time we are due to get into Haridwar and I’m told 1 a.m.!!!!!  And Haridwar is an hour to Rishikesh by bus… the last of which departs at 11 p.m.!!!  It’s now 52 hours of travelling and i feel deflated at the fact that i am gonna have fail to reach my destination by the desired time and for the desired reason.  In fact, i may as well have not bothered coming all this way at all, i thought, in a moment of exasperation.  But as we pulled out of that station at 4 o’clock, a wave of optimism hit me from somewhere and for some reason i thought ‘No, I’m gonna make this, I’m gonna get to Rishikesh for New Year, I’m gonna see Marta Calvo and we’re gonna see in this 2012 cos i need it, i need to let go of the past year and all its difficulties and sadness and i need to see in this New Year with my friend, having fun and looking forward.’  And 2 minutes later, another voice pipes up… ‘We’re due into Haridwar at 10.30 p.m’!  A kind soul put my mind at ease and so i could relax into the penultimate leg of this gargantuan journey on the dirtiest train i have ever been on, with my ticket that was actually for the ‘General Class’ carriage, which i will tell you about another time but suffice to say, at about 40 pence for a 6 hour journey, isn’t somewhere you really wanna spend much time at the end of a near 60 hour journey!

Part of the delight of travelling in India is encountering situations and seeing sites that you’ll never encounter anywhere else in the World.  The first hour of this leg of my trip was spent watching a Sikh man adorning himself with a turban.  First of all, he and his wife stretched it out, half the length of the carriage, whilst his son doused it with water.  I couldn’t believe how long this was, easily 15 foot i reckon, maybe more.  IT WAS HUGE!  But the way he kept wrapping it around his head was incredible.  It wouldn’t quite end at the right point so he kept unwrapping it, moving the starting point half an inch at most and starting again…and again…and again, whilst my mind was locked in!!  And after what seemed at least an hour, he was done and working on the turban for his colossal beard!!  You ever see anything like that on a British train?

Although there are lots of people to meet and conversations to be had whilst travelling the sub-continent, many of those ‘chats’ are with people who don’t speak my language.  Too many times i have men staring at me waiting for me to respond to a question i don’t understand or sat watching me write in my book about things they can’t possibly read but pretend they can.  It’s funny sometimes, but when you’re tired and have been travelling for over 50 consecutive hours (aren’t all hours consecutive?!), it can be a trying experience and you long for either a couple of hours of ‘down time’ or a conversation with someone about something interesting.  And as the hours to New Years Eve ticked ever closer, a decent conversation was exactly what i got.

A young student, probably 19 or 20, sat down and in English that made me feel like a character from On The Buses, started telling me about life here in India and asking how it compared to mine at home.  We talked about relationships, work, his confidence that his parents would find him the right woman to marry and in this hour of chat, i learnt more about the India of today than i was probably to learn during one conversation on the rest of this journey.  The eloquence that this boy spoke with was a joy and yet he wasn’t from Bangalore or Mumbai or one of the grand cities of India, but a small town 3 hours away from Delhi.  However, one thing more than any other endeared this young fellow to me and that was his help in the following incident:

As the train guard approached asking for tickets, i completely forgot that i was sat in the ´Up-market´ carriage whilst my ticket was telling me to ´Get the hell outta here and into the General carriage, you free loader´!  Didn´t shout loud enough though did it?  For here approached the Guard and out came my wrong ticket and so as if in a game of ´I produce – you produce´ (a game i clearly just this second made up which as it happens is about the most boring of games anyone ever thought up on the spot… although if you had a pocket full of abstract and oversized props, could actually induce much fun), he relieved of his pocket a notebook and a pen, handed it to me and asked for 800 rupees!!!!  800 rupees!!!!!! That´s, like, 10 quid…

I didn´t have 10 quid but i did have an intelligent young Indian man with me who argued my case (the case was that i was an ignorant tourist who thought he´d get away with travelling with the middle classes with a ´General class´ ticket, although, in my water-tight defense, the train was suitably empty and did i mention how filthy it was…?!)  SO i paid about 100 rupees as a penalty and nuff was said.

I got to Haridwar and obviously missed the last bus but managed to get a rickshaw to take me to Rishikesh, at 11 p.m  The journey was around an hour.  I was wearing a shirt.  It was 7 degrees…  And as we are flying through the pitch black streets towards my destination, with only seconds to spare, my driver does what all good drivers of someone who is in such an incredible rush does… he pulls over to buy some cigarettes!!!!  Not only does he do this, he chats lazily to the store owner whilst i am in the back of his rickshaw, mouth agape, fists clenched, eyes popping out of my head, shouting as loud as i can at nothing in particular at the incredulity of my current predicament, a bit like this

I get to Rishikesh at 11:45 p.m!!  ´Just enough time to run across this bridge in front of me, find my room in the pitch black streets i can´t see across this big river and meet Marta for a New Years Knees Up´ (in what i was slowly noticing was a very quite place for New Years Eve), i thought.  And as the time was being noticed by way of my phone, a message popped up from Marta.  ´Thank the Lord, she hasn´t forgotten me´!!!!

The message was sent at 10:30 p.m.

I expected ´Meet me at this place before 12´

I got ´I am very tired, i go to bed, see you tomorrow´…………

59 hours of non-stop travelling it took me to get to Rishikesh, in the North of India from Gokarna in the South West.  I had gone from temperatures of 30´C to 7´C.  I had eaten food i would not normally even be able to look at, let alone stomach.  I had poopsydoo´d in a train toilet at least 3 times.  And i had travelled by train, bus, rickshaw, taxi and Angel to meet my friend for New Years Eve.  And at 10:30 p.m,…… she had gone to bed……

And as i wandered the quite, dark streets of an alien place at gone midnight, looking for something, someone, anything to do, having spent the chimes of midnight in a crappy reception signing my details into a book for a room i wouldn´t even use for storage of stuff i hated, a bitter, lonesome, melancholic ´Happy Bloody New Year´ crept out from my lips.

Finally, i found a coffee shop that was open, sat down with a hot drink and a brownie and looked over at the t.v that was showing other people having fun and seeing in the New Year with their friends.

´Happy Bloody New Year´ i repeated to myself and choked on a chocolate chip…


One thought on “India and the longest journey ever undertaken – Part 2

  1. Well, shoot. After all that trouble, and you didn’t even get to celebrate; I bet Marta felt bad about it later. But weren’t you ridiculously tired yourself? The trains sound awful, but look what nice people you bumped into, which doesn’t surprise me a bit. You yourself bring out the niceness.

    Also: old people, sadly, aren’t necessarily wise, but I imagine you already know that.

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