I had booked myself a berth in a first class sleeper compartment for the overnight journey on the Indian railways from New Delhi to Varanasi. But it didn’t work out as I’d planned…
My first impressions of India, arriving in New Delhi a few days before, were of the overwhelming noise, the crowds and the smells. The train station was no different. I had arrived early to catch the overnight train but the station was overcrowded, I was carrying far too much in my backpack, and in the humidity I was already sweating. And that was before I started to panic.
I had a ticket and a reservation in a numbered sleeper carriage, but it wasn’t clear at which end of the train I could find my carriage. So I asked a man in uniform and he pointed to the far end of the train. I started to walk, and push through the throngs, then walk faster, because the clock was ticking towards the time of departure. Eventually I found the end of the train but there was no first-class sleeper compartment there. Another uniformed railway guard told me it was at the other end of the train! Oh no! Now less than ten before departure and I had to fight my way back through a chaotic mass of pushing people, along the platform to the other end of the train, which seemed like half a mile away. Carrying my too-heavy rucsac, this was like some kind of military training exercise in the tropics. I was tiring fast but adrenalin kept me going. I was still only half way back along the length of the train when the guard blew his whistle as a signal to the driver that it was time to depart. Very slowly, the train started to move. So I opened the nearest door and jumped in.
Suddenly, the noise of the platform disappeared and silence fell on me. Everyone in this third-class carriage turned to look at me. Silently, without a single word being spoken, the crowd screamed: “What the hell are you doing in here?!” To be fair, it was a good question, and I didn’t know the answer. I was totally out of place, literally a ‘foreign body’ and had the feeling I was about to be rejected by this living organism into which I had been absorbed. There was no threat, but I felt uncomfortable, simply because I was so out of place. This third class carriage was simply an empty cattle truck with some wooden benches. Not knowing what else to do, or what to say, I simply sat down. I tried the London Underground tactic of “avoid eye contact with everyone else” but this was India, not England, and that’s not the way they do things here: everybody was blatantly staring at me.
Well, I thought, there are only eight hours to go…
The train trundled along into the night, through endless fields, past villages, on and on, eastwards towards my destination of Varanasi and beyond. Hours went by. Then at some point, with scratching, scraping and screeching, the brakes were applied and the train came to a stop. Some people opened the doors and got off the train. But this wasn’t a station. There was no platform. People climbed down on to the track and walked off into the darkness across fields. This was my chance to find the carriage I’d booked. A carriage with a bunk to sleep in! So I too climbed down on to the track, my rucsac on my back. I continued walking in the same direction as I’d been going on the station platform but now instead of fighting through the crowds I was feeling my way in the darkness over gravel and sleepers. I passed carriage after carriage but still couldn’t find First Class. Then with a clunking and rattling, the train started to move again. So I climbed back on, just where I was. Now I found myself in Second Class! Again, everyone was silently surprised at my ghostly appearance from the dark night but nothing was said as people stared at this unexpected stranger. At least in this carriage there were some seats. This was a slightly more comfortable place to spend the night. I looked at my watch and there were only six more hours before Varanasi.
The train continued its winding, slow journey through the night…
Some two or three hours later, the train stopped again. Same thing: just a stop in the middle of nowhere, with people climbing down and walking away. Surely this time I could find my carriage. Half-asleep and weary, I climbed down again and continued walking in search of my carriage, knowing that at any moment the train could set off again. I walked as fast as I could in the darkness. Yes! First Class! Yay! I climbed up, opened the door and found my compartment. Mine was one of four bunk beds. It was a top bunk, with an electric fan that didn’t work. I didn’t care. I was soaking in sweat anyway. I lay down and tried to sleep.
A couple of hours later it was dawn and soon after the train arrived at Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges river, where pilgrims flock to bathe in sacred water, where bodies are burnt on floating funeral pyres, where spiritual enlightenment is the reward for the blessed.
But right then, arriving weary and on the edge of illness, I had no time for any of that. I needed to sleep. At that moment of arrival I had no idea what the hell I was doing in this place. I wished I’d never come and I was at home in my own cool bed. I wished I didn’t feel like I was about to come down with a fever, or the shits, or both. I just wasn’t in the mood for Varanasi, or any of India for that matter. I was in agreement with people who ask me why I even want to go to these strange places, full of poverty and disease. Why not go instead to the Costa Del Sol, to enjoy a pleasant climate and cold beer on a beach overlooking the Mediterranean? I didn’t have the energy or will to argue with them. I had nothing to say. They were right. I was crazy, to imagine that India would be wonderful and mysterious and exotic.
Of course my perspective changed when my body was refreshed by sleep, and my mind had exorcised dark thoughts after rehydrating. I took a day off to lie low, to escape, to recover. The following day I was ready to face India again, to deal with the heat and the crowds and the noise. I was ready to see the wondrous city of Varanasi on the banks of the river that is ever flowing and ever changing: the sacred Ganges.
Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
First published 20 December 2018.
“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
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