ENLIGHTENMENT

Enlightenment, don’t know what it is…
– Van Morrison

He was a vision in orange. His robes hung from his lean frame in flowing billows. Around his neck he wore a collection of sacred threads and clackering beads. His sandaled feet glided across the polished linoleum floor of the Nagpur Railway Station’s booking office. A crocheted bag of many colours hung from his tattooed shoulder. His wooden stick tapped on the tiles.

“I heff missed my train,” he said, pushing to the head of the queue, Indian fashion. “Vot vill I must do now?”

The woman behind the scratched and grimy perspex counter-guard eyed him with the long-practised scorn that Indian railway staff, used to dealing with an endless barrage of queue-jumpers, have perfected over the years.

“Counter three,” she said and returned to the business of organising my ticket to Allahabad. The German psuedo-Hindu groaned and moved away. The ticket clerk glanced up at me but I was silent. Karma is a bitch, I thought. No need to aggravate it by adding my opinion.

India is full of Westerners pretending to to be Indians. You see them on the ghats at Varanasi and in the Buddhist temple at Nagpur. They think they blend in, with their ethnic clothes, orange robes, matted hair and beads. But they are just as obvious as the elderly tourists in expensive clothes and improper footwear you see in the same places: shepherded around by touts and guides, shell-shocked and horrified, through the chamber of horrors that is Varanasi or the indecipherable chaos of the temples at Ellora.

You see them bathing in the Ganges, sitting cross-legged on the Raj Ghat, meditating in the temples, and wearing blue robes at the Buddhist shrines. They believe every word their handlers tell them. They wear their sacred threads. They stretch their limbs in the ashrams. They seek enlightenment. They collect their monthly remittances from trust funds back home. 

India, to them, is a fully-immersive theme park. And they can go home any time they like.

Westerners visiting India seeking enlightenment are going to be disappointed. At the very least, they are only going to delude themselves into thinking that they have found enlightenment. India is, in fact, frightening. There is no enlightenment to be found here. India is crowded, chaotic, fascinating, brutal and relentlessly, overwhelmingly filthy. The erratic, stupid and plain dangerous behaviour of its drivers defies comprehension. The noise is constant and intense.

India is incomprehensible and unknowable. But perhaps that is it’s greatest attraction. India is impossible to understand; so it is best not to try and understand it. You just dive in, go with the flow and take from the experience anything you like. There is no enlightenment here. But you will find out things you didn’t know: mostly about yourself.

Besides, who needs enlightenment? Your orange robes won’t stop the train from leaving without you.  Van Morrison said it best: “Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.”

The Bridge Across Forever

“When Brahm ceases to dream, the Gods go…”
– Rudyard Kipling, The Bridge Builders

Findlayson of the Public Works Department would be proud. The bridge that he, Findlayson, C.S.I., built still stands after one hundred and  forty years. It’s stone piers, capped with red Agra stone, and sunk eighty feet into the shifting ooze of the Ganges’ bed, have stood up to monsoonal floods and catastrophic collisions. Its carefully engineered lattice of girders and trusses, Findlayson trusses, have stood up to the ever-increasing live load stresses created by the flood of vehicles and people crossing it every day. Its two brick piers, facing each other across the river, “loop-holed for musketry and pierced for big guns”, are as clean and fresh as the day the bridge was opened by the Viceroy.

“Loop-holed for musketry…”

The Dufferin Bridge, also known as the Kashi Bridge and by its official (since 1948) name Malviya Bridge, spans the Ganges at Varanasi, just north of the Raj Ghat. This area of Varanasi is way beyond the tourists. This is workaday Benares. Buffaloes chew their cuds beside a rotting timber boat. The rusted remains of a river steamer, its hull pocked with corrosion, its boiler gaping open like a sightless skull, lies half-buried in Ganges mud. A group of men surreptitiously play cards on the ground beside a pile of funeral pyre wood. And dominating the scene, the bridge steps across the river into the hazy, half-seen forever of the northern bank.

In his short story The Bridge Builders, published in 1898 in his collection of stories titled The Day’s Work, Rudyard Kipling describes a catastrophic flood sent by the Gods to destroy the bridge before its completion. The bridge’s Chief Engineer, Findlayson, gets caught up in the flood along with his Indian serang (overseer) Peroo and, together, they are swept away and are washed up on an island. Peroo gives his half-drowned master some opium to revive him and Findlayson has a vision of the enraged Gods discussing the bridge.

“They have chained my flood, and my river is not free any more,” snarls a crocodile, the blunt-nosed, ford-haunting Mugger of the Ganges. “Heavenly Ones, take this yoke away! Give me clear water between bank and bank.”

The Gods rage against the bridge and against the “fire-carriages”, trains, that were beginning to criss-cross the sacred landscapes of India. But amid the rage there is also reason.

“Let the dirt dig in the dirt,” the elephant-headed god Ganesh says to Mother Gunga. “My people grow rich [with the trade enabled by the roads and the railways] and praise me.

The gods argue to and fro. But the waters are dropping. Mother Gunga has done her best but the “fire-carriages” will still thread their way across the land, each one bearing “a thousand pilgrims” to worship at the altars of the Gods. 

“Be content, Gunga,” the Tigress says. “Neither these men nor those that follow them mock thee at all.”

The flood subsides, the sun comes out. Findlayson and Peroo are rescued and the bridge is completed. But Peroo understands the ramifications of the fire-carriages and the roads. He understands what the new rulers of India, The British, and their single, all-powerful God means for the old gods.

“When Brahm ceases to dream, the gods go,” he says to himself as he and Findlayson are taken back upriver to the undamaged Kashi Bridge.

I thought of Kipling’s story as I explored the southern approach of the bridge. Up on the deck, the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road, which stretches from Dhaka, in Bangladesh, all the way to Lahore, in Pakistan, thundered and roared. In the dank, shady confines below, fires smouldered beside shanties of tin and tar-paper. Dogs prowled the rubbish-heaps and filthy children eyed me suspiciously. On the face of the red-brick bridge tower, beside the railway lines, was a plaque:  

O. & R. R. Co.
THE DUFFERIN BRIDGE
MEMBERS OF THE COMPANY’S STAFF ASSOCIATED WITH
THE PROJECTION AND CONSTRUCTION OF THIS BRIDGE,
IN ENGLAND
SIR JOHN PENDER, CHAIRMAN.
MAJOR-GENERAL C. C. JOHNSTON, R.E., MANAGING DIRECTOR
W. F. BATHO, Esq, M. I. C. E., CONSULTING ENGINEER (UP TO HIS DEATH)
J. W. H. JAMES, Esq., M. I. C. E., DITTO  DITTO (PRESENT)
IN INDIA
AT HEADQUARTERS.
COLONEL J. H. JENKINS, B. S. C. AGENT
H. B. HEDERSTEDT, M. I. C. E.,  CHIEF ENGINEER
BABU RAMGOPAL VIDYANT, ASSISTANT DO
ON THE BRIDGE WORKS
F. T. C. WALTON, Esq, M. I. C. E. RESIDENT ENGINEER IN CHARGE OF THE BRIDGE
S. CRAWSHAW, Esq, ASSISTANT ENGINEER
——————
The following Consulting Engineers to Government held Office
at Lucknow during the projection and construction of the Bridge.
MAJOR-GENERAL R. D. DeBOURBEL, R. E.
COLONEL E. DAVIDSON, R. E.
COLONEL C. H. LUARD, R. E.
COLONEL R. C. B. PEMBERTON, R. E.
COLONEL T  F. DOWDEN, R. E.
—————-
The general features of the bridge were determined
by Messrs. Batho & Hederstedt.
The steel girders and the plant and appliances used in
erecting them, and in sinking the foundations of the piers,
were designed by Mr. Batho.  All the other
portions of the bridge were designed by Mr. Hederstedt
—————-

These were the people that Kipling knew; the inspiration for the characters in The Bridge Builders. There were no tourists here. There was just me, the ghosts of Findlayson and Peroo, and the roar and rattle of traffic on the steel lattices of the bridge across forever.

A Perfect Pearl

Never mind those making promises of the afterlife;
Join us now, righteous friends, in this intoxication…
– Zeb-un-Nissa, Mughal poetess.

She was the love of his life. His favourite wife. Mother of his heir. To Aurangzeb, soon to become Emperor of the Moghul Empire, the greatest empire that India had seen, she was the world: a perfect pearl in a jewelled firmament. Her name had been Dilras Banu Begum. She had borne him four children. The eldest, Zeb-un-Nissa, would become a gifted poet. Their son, Muhammad Azam Shah, would one day succeed him, albeit briefly, as Emperor. 

But in giving birth to their fifth child, Dilras Banu Begum died. Grief-stricken, Aurangzeb commissioned a monumental tomb for her. It would be the only great building that the Emperor would build during his reign. A pious, austere and parsimonious Muslem, Aurangzeb had little time for monuments. To him, the great works of his predecessors – Akbar’s Fatepur Sikri, Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal – were of little use. To him, creating illuminated copies of the Qur’an were of much more significance in the temporal world. His late and beloved wife, however, deserved a monument that was of suitable grandeur: a monument to Aurangzeb’s conjugal fidelity. And so, Aurangzeb designed and built the Bibi Ka Maqbara. 

Stepping through the vaulted arch of the marble entrance gate I was immediately transported back to the day in 1992 when I first saw the Taj Mahal. Flanked by four slender minarets, the perfect dome of the Bibi Ka Maqbara, perched lightly on its dias of polished marble and red sandstone, is an almost exact of its larger and more famous contemporary. 

Crowds of afternoon visitors thronged the flagstones and side gardens. A long marble water-garden, dry now but still perfectly proportioned, drew me forward. I climbed a set of stone steps, removed my boots and entered the cool, dim inner sanctum. A cool breeze flowed through the interior from delicate lattices, carved from single slabs of pure white marble, set into four alcoves. Below the level of the floor, and covered by an intricate silken blanken, lay the tomb of Dilras Banu Begum: a perfect pearl intombed forever within her marble shroud.

I sat on the edge of the west alcove, savouring the zepher of wind flowing through the lattice and watched the crowds walking reverentially around the tomb, clockwise, and tossing coins for luck down onto the Begum’s tomb. Gravestones and monuments are for the living. They are no use to the dead. The Bibi Ka Maqbara is a living, breathing tomb: an incarnation in marble of the words of Zeb-un-Nissa, Aurangzeb’s daughter. Never mind making promises of the afterlife; join us now in this intoxication. 

The Great Flood (Part Two)

And they carved elaborate effigies of the Buddha, seated and reclining, in the darkest recesses of their crepuscular, subterranean world… 

North of Aurangabad, the road descends an escarpment of dusty basalt in a series of rutted, pot-holed hair-pins. My driver, Shanti, curses the government, the Prime Minister and various gods as he navigates a tenuous route down the uneven surface, dodging the biggest holes and the oncoming trucks. One thing you learn very quickly on India’s roads: no-one has right of way and everyone has right of way!

We reach the valley floor and enter a wilderness of car and bus parks. Touts descend on us offering great deals in their souvenir shops and guides to the caves. There are crows hopping about on the periphery and rubbish in the trees: the usual Indian scene.

“I will be waiting here for you,” says Shanti as I clamber from the car into the knot of touts. Helpful hands guide me towards the entrance gates. Someone presses a small piece of quartz crystal into my hand. “Come to my shop, friend,” he whispers. I tell him that I will. Later. The entrance fee for foreigners to visit the Ajanta Caves is 600 Rupees: fifteen times the price that locals pay.

When India crashed into Asia, her great burden of tholeiitic basalt, erupted from the volcanoes of the Reunion Mantle Plume (see The Great Flood Part One ) had already been solidified for millions of years. Eons passed. The sun crept across the sky day after day. The Monsoon rains scoured and shaped the basalts into deep ravines and sharp-edged ranges. The moon, another chunk of sodium-poor, tholeiitic basalt, poured its light onto the landscape. The stars slowly changed their positions as they rotated across the heavens.

Far off, in Africa, a species of primate slowly evolved into a new, highly intelligent species  known as Homo sapiens. Resourceful and inquisitive, they began expanding their territory. Exploring along the coastlines, they eventually began settling in India in large numbers, creating civilisations that rose and fell, ebbed and flowed across the subcontinent.  

Some of them kept moving: peopling the landmasses and island arcs of Southeast Asia and out across the great, blue, inverted universe of the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, some of them would reach a group of islands far to the south of this vast ocean. They would name these islands after the clouds draped across them: Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud. And these islands would one day also be my home.

In India, religions established themselves. One of these, Buddhism, arose in the time before the birth of the Christian era. Many of its adherents were monks who sought out isolated places in which to live and to meditate on the nature of life and existence. At Ajanta, there were caves: isolated, inaccessible, quiet. These bubbles and fissures in the ancient stone of the Deccan Flood Basalts were perfect for the contemplation of the Universe. The monks set to work. With endless patience they enlarged the existing caverns. They excavated new ones. They decorated the walls and ceilings with mandalas. And they carved elaborate effigies of the Buddha, seated and reclining, in the darkest recesses of their crepuscular, subterranean world.   

Beyond the ticket office, another gaggle of touts and guides await. There are wiry men with palanquins to carry the less physically able (i.e. fat) pilgrims up to the caves. I brush their advances and platitudes aside. Two flights of steps, one steep, one less so, are carved into the living rock of the valley wall. I take the steep set and ascend towards Nirvana…

(To be continued) 

The Great Flood (Part One)

For tens of thousands of years the lava flooded out over the eastern side of India…

It was a hellish time to be alive. The Earth’s atmosphere was polluted with sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and a stew of other noxious gases. The chemicals, compounds and elements that formed this global atmospheric pall were being emitted from a mass of volcanoes, erupting like bubbles in a vast, roiling porridge-pot of molten rock on the planet’s surface. This miasma of poison blotted out the sun and caused the planet’s temperature to plummet. A dreadful, endless winter enveloped the world in its cold grip. And then, as if all of this wasn’t enough, a massive asteroid struck the Earth, filling the already choked and hazy air with a fine, planet-encircling film of iridium. It was a hellish time to be alive. In fact, most of the larger creatures that had, for millions of years, dominated the planet’s ecosystems, would soon not be.

When the block of continental crust that would one day be called India separated from the supercontinent of Gondwana, it began drifting northwards towards the continent of Asia. It was a slow journey, no more than 80 millimetres per year. But there was plenty of time and for the next 100 million years or so India crept along on her raft of crust. Things were, however, about to get busy. 

The Deccan Traps

In what is now the South Atlantic Ocean, India passed over a mantle plume: a place where molten magma rose in a great column from deep in the Earth. As the continent passed slowly over the plume (which today still lies beneath the island of La Reunion), two things happened. Firstly, vast amounts of lava spewed out onto the subcontinent, covering the landscape with deep, alternating layers of basalt. And secondly, the heat from the fires beneath melted the underside of India’s crust, like a candle held over a flame.

For tens of thousands of years the lava flooded out over the eastern side of India. Occasionally, the flows would subside for a time and wind-blown dust would accumulate in thin, bright layers. At other times, rivers and shallow seas would cover the lava flows, creating layers of fine gravels and beds of silty clays. Small organisms thrived in these waters and their remains became fossils. But then, the eruptions would begin again and these fine layers would be buried in successive layers of black, fine-grained basalt.

Eventually, the continent moved away from the mantle plume and the eruptions ceased. India, carrying her massive burden of solidified basalt with her, continued her journey northwards towards Asia. But she was lighter now, much lighter, despite the weight of the 100,000 cubic kilometres of new rock that the eruptions had bestowed upon her. The subterranean fires had melted so much of her underside away that she now floated high on the crust upon which she rode. 

So she moved fast. Really fast by geological standards. By the time she reached the southern edge of Asia, India was moving at a rate of 150 millimetres per year: breakneck speed. And then, she slammed into Asia. The collision was so violent that a series of massive mountain ranges were pushed up where the edges of the two continents met.   

As this slow but monumental collision was going on, the planet continued to cool, screened from the sun’s warmth by the shroud of volcanic gas and pulverized iridium. The big creatures grew cold and began to die. The smaller creatures, the ones that scurried in the bushes and who needed less warmth to survive, evolved into every niche the big creatures – the dinosaurs – had vacated. Some of them became birds, their feathers slowly evolving from scales into feathers. 

Primates

Some of them became primates, furry creatures that, at first, walked on all fours. But as the climate warmed up again, the rainforests forests disappeared and they began to stand upright in order to see over the tall grasses that now covered the savannah lands where they lived. The descendants of this species would one day come to dominate the planet. And they would one day carve deep and spectacular caves of worship into the hard black basalt of the Deccan Traps.

To be continued…

Two Feet in Asia (Reprise)

Holidays must end, as you know; all these memories taken home with me…
– 10,000 Maniacs, Verdi Cries. 

Mid-afternoon in Kolkata. Outside the airport doors, it is a hot, blue day. A haze of dust hangs in the air. I can still see the palm trees and mynah birds, the flurry of taxis, and the cohort of buses arriving at the kerb. The sun is at its zenith, casting hard shadows onto the ground. The tinted glass of the windows and doors gives an impression of coolness inside. But out here I am still shrouded by the hot breath of Asia. I have left the chaos and madness of downtown Kolkata behind. I have paid off my taxi driver: a thief who demanded twice the agreed fare once we’d arrived outside the Internationational Departures building. I have my backpack on and my passport in my hand.  All I need to do now is to walk through the doors and out of Asia.

Travel is a disappearing act. Leaving for home is, in itself, an adventure: a transition from the outlandish back to the mundane; from the extraordinary back to the ordinary. The adverts, the city bill-boards, the newspaper headlines, the hectoring political loudspeakers: these things spoke to other people. I was leaving. I was leaving the haze of the Indian subcontinent and disappearing back into the clear air of my homeland. 

Asia is vast. It spans the world from the edge of the Bosphorus in Turkey to the islands of Japan and beyond: a distance of 11,000 kilometres, or 8,000 miles, or 36 million feet. Someone who lives in Istanbul is as much an Asian as someone from Jakarta or Aurangabad or Kobe. Nearly four and a half billion people walk on the continent of Asia. And for the past month, my two feet had joined them.

But now, I was tired. I wanted to go home. I’d had a great adventure. I’d discovered a lot about myself. But I need the quiet, empty landscapes on New Zealand’s South Island. Holidays must end, as you know, and I had these memories to take home with me.     

Travel Writer Life

The doors slide open with a sibilant hiss. The hot breath of the city, the aromas of dust, vegetation, drains, closely-pressed humanity and the background whiff of kerosene from the jet engines roaring overhead fade into memory. India lies behind me. I step through the doorway and out of Asia.

Lament for the Traveller

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
– L.P. Hartley, The Go-between

I thought I would die in Varanasi. It wasn’t the relentless, ubiquitous filth. It wasn’t the jostling, wild-eyed crowds celebrating the festival of Mahashivaratri. It wasn’t the cloying smoke of the burning ghats or the constantly spitting people. It wasn’t even the storm that cut the power to the city and smote the banks of the Ganges with detonations of thunder and jagged blasts of incandescent lightning. It was none of those things. In fact, I didn’t even think that I would actually die in Varanasi. I just appropriated that line from the 1920s-era travel writer HV Morten, who began his book In Search of England with the line “I thought I would die in Palestine”, in order to add drama.

But what caused me the most anxiety in Varanasi, and, indeed, throughout my journey to India, was the realization, final and irreversible, that I was no longer a traveller.

Between September 1988 and November 1994, my girlfriend Linda and I travelled the world. Our generation were born in the sweet spot of time (1963-1968) between the coddled Baby Boomers and the cynical Gen-Xers. And for a decade or so, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, the world was our playground. And we travelled hard. During the course of our adventures we visited 35 countries on four continents, worked in pubs and factories and on farms, got engaged in Vienna, married in New Zealand, and lived the life of gypsies out in the world.

Phewa Lake, Pokkara, Nepal, March 1992.

We weren’t tourists: we were travellers. We revelled in hardship. We took risks. We changed money with shady dealers in African back alleys. We raced floods and avalanches in the black gorges of the Indus Valley, where the river slices through the Karakoram Mountains in the north of Pakistan. We lay on jewelled Indonesian beaches and smoked hash beside the funeral pyres of Varanasi. We rode third class, ate on the streets and slept in dirty, dirt cheap flophouses with only the billowing, diaphanous folds of a mosquito net between us and malaria. We negotiated tricky roads in dangerous territory and, occasionally, lolled in comfort in 5-star hotels where the colour of our skin gave us exclusive entry. We haggled over every last rupee, shilling and dirham. We were on the road. Nothing else mattered.

Then home. Reality. Careers, kids, a mortgage. All the good stuff. The settled life. Twenty-eight years passed. And then, I was back in Asia, with a backpack, a list of destinations, and a notion that I would travel hard again. A wanderer in the Blue Rooms. A traveller.

Marnikarnika Ghat, Varanasi, February, 2020

But it was too hard. And I was too old. India was hot, squalid, crowded, unfathomable and relentlessly filthy. I ditched half my itinerary and moved up-market. I stayed in good hotels, took expensive, air-conditioned sleeper trains, navigated with Google Maps and rode Ola and Uber wherever I went. I didn’t die in Varanasi. I just let go of my old self. The traveller became a tourist. And that’s OK. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

INDIAN RAIN

Suli Ram. Evening is near.
Soon the clouds will cool the earth with showers…

– South Asian Lullaby

It was winter in India. The dry, cool season. The earth lay parched and brown under the sun. The rivers, full-bodied and fierce during the Monsoon, lay flat and lifeless: muddy trickles between their banks of clay.

Even Mother Ganga, bringer of life, destroyer of men, curled meekly through the landscape, her waters brown and shallow. On either side of her, wide reaches of bare, grey silt stretched away into the haze. In places, the people buried their dead, garlanding the graves with  rectangles of orange and yellow flowers. In time, with the coming of the Monsoon, Mother Ganga would come down in spate and carry the dead away into eternity.

Varanasi lay under a pall of smokey haze. The ghats stepped back from the river in steep, crumbling, ancient layers, each layer built on the remains of others. Boats plied to and fro on the wind-chopped water. The sun rose scarlet across the river, casting a ladder of gold across the Ganges, then dissolved into the opaque sky.

I walked the day away, lost in the crowds of pilgrims celebrating the festival of Shiva, then climbed the sandstone steps above the Meer Ghat to a bakery where I drank coffee and watched the procession of colours go by outside.

And as I stepped from the  cafe, it began to rain: cool, sweet-smelling rain. Indian rain. The clouds were cooling the earth with showers.

Locomotive Breath

LOCOMOTIVE BREATH

 Say, porter, when’s the next train down?
– Rudyard Kipling, My Sunday at Home

On the platform at Allahabad  Railway Station I saw a dog asleep on a pile of luggage. Or perhaps it was bales of cotton, sewn up into jute parcels. Whatever they were, the dog looked very comfortable: stretched out like a cat in front of a fire.

In the linear world of India’s railway platforms life is condensed into the essentials: food, shelter, drink and movement. And cellphones. Everyone has a cellphone, from the lowliest sweeper to the fattest tycoon. 

Stalls sell chai and chips, pakoras,and panni, biscuits and books. Hawkers ply the polished flagstones calling “chaiiiii….chaiiiii.” A team of green-shirted men sweep and mop and tidy: cleaning up the endless stream of rubbish dropped from train windows. 

I caught a glimpse of another westerner through the open doors of a carriage standing on Platform Two. Or perhaps it was just a trick of the light. The dog slept on, oblivious of the activity around it. I had another two hours to wait until my train to Varanasi departed.

Trains have been an integral part of the Indian transport system since they were introduced by the British in 1837. The first train was named the Red Hills Railway and was opened in 1837. It carried quarried granite from the Red Hills to Madras. The first passenger train began operating in Bombay (now Mumbai) on April 16th, 1853. Today, India’s network of railways is the fourth largest in the world, comprising 121,471 kilometres of track covering a distance of 67,368 kilometres. India Railway operates over 20,000 passenger services per day from 7,349 stations across the subcontinent.

My desire to travel across India by train is heavily influenced by the writing of Paul Theroux, whose book The Great Railway Bazaar was one of the primary inspirations for my becoming a travel writer. The works of the historians Michael Wood, Dan Snow and William Dalrymple have also been pivotal in the development of my interest in India.

From my Second Class air conditioned bunk I watched Uttar Pradesh spool past outside. On the outskirts of the city, filthy suburbs of shanties built from junk gave way to a scrubby, litter-strewn hinterland where pigs, dogs, cows and goats picked through the refuse for digestible tidbits. The train rattled across the Ganges on a steel bridge. On the silty river flats people had buried their dead. Rectangular garlands of orange and yellow surrounded each grave. Mother Ganges would come for them during the Monsoon. 

And then the countryside, flat and fecund, gleaming with water. Fields of bright yellow mustard flowers waved on their tall pale green stalks under a sky of featureless silver-grey haze. A girl in a lime green sari pumping water by hand from a well. Stooks of maize stalks and brown domino rows of cow shit, patted into patties and set out too dry. The white exclamation point of a brick kiln chimney. A man in a white dhoti whacking listlessly at the dusty weeds beside a substation. Battalions of pylons marching into the distance. Black and white goats on the edge of a paddy field. Life-giving water shining on the yellow clay.

Some kids were playing cricket on a dirt pitch beside the line where the train stopped for some reason. I climbed down from the carriage and bowled two balls: New Zealand versus India replicated in the dust with a single bat and a pile of bricks for stumps.

I talked to a woman in a beautiful yellow sari. She gave me some jackfruit curry and two chapatis.And then the linear world of the Nandigram Express was at Varanasi Junction and I was back out on another platform.

Ninety-two and Twenty Twenty

Nothing changes but everything changes…
– Sharon O’Neil, Kids in Our Town (1983)

I turned 29 in India. It was 1992. My girlfriend Linda (now my wife of 27 years) and I were four months into a nine-month journey from Britain back home to New Zealand. On this trip we had already visited Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. We’d celebrated Christmas 1991 at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and New Year in Harare. We had stood on the summit of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan and looked down into Afghanistan and spent weeks having some epic adventures in the wintery vastness of the Karakoram Mountains.

1992

Now, we were in Pushkar, a small town in Rajasthan, the desert state in India’s north-east. For my birthday, we ate at a restaurant overlooking a lake and drank a bhang lassi (a yoghurt drink laced with marijuana). We were young and free and the world was our playground. We would spend another month in India, then cross the border into Nepal. From Kathmandu we would eventually fly to Hong Hong, spend a month in China then travel down the length of Southeast Asia: through Thailand, Malaysia and the long, jewelled necklace of Indonesia, all the way to Timor, across to Darwin and home.

Travel was in our blood. It was what we did best. We got married, worked for a year, and left again. Back to the road. Out in the world. New York, Amsterdam, England, Iran, Pakistan again, and China. By then it was 1994. We went home to Geraldine. Settled down. Bought a house, raised two amazing daughters. Careers, bankruptcy, a secure job. Money. The stuff of life. And then, I was back in India.

I turned 57 in India. I was in the holy city of Allahabad, where the three holiest rivers in India – the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati – join their waters together. I’d come to India alone this time, for no other reason than to challenge myself out in the world. But everything was different. India was crowded, filthy, noisy and incomprehensible. As a twenty-nine year old, travelling with Linda, it had been easy. We had slept in bug-infested flop-houses, eaten in the cheapest joints, ridden 3rd class and haggled over every last Rupee. We had leaned on each other and it had made the hardships bearable…even fun.

2020

But now, of course, I was different. The hard-core backpacker lifestyle held no attraction anymore. I had thought that it would: it didn’t. I was too old and too used to comfort to slum it. So I moved up-market. I stayed in nice hotels; I rode 2nd Class Air Conditioned trains; I took Ola and Uber rides whenever I could; I found cafes serving good coffee; and I used technology – Google Maps, a hotel booking app, Wikipedia – for all of my research, planning and logistics. It made travelling easier. It made it bearable.

India is fun. India is chaotic, filthy, bizarre, unknowable. I am a ghost here…a ghost of my younger self. I turned 29 in India. And I turned 57 in India. Nothing changes but everything changes.