In Transit

“Turbulence is normal,” I said, feigning more assurance than I felt as the plane banked and shuddered across the sky between Dhaka and Calcutta.
Jen-Pei and I had met while travelling across Asia and had fallen into a relationship, a result of the joy of discovery, loneliness and the forced intimacy of budget travel. A few weeks into it, our differences emerged steadily to form cracks on the veneer of vacation romance.
We commenced our descent.
The first thing I thought on landing at what was then called Dum Dum Airport (see note) was how much more enjoyable it is to begin a journey by descending those great staircases that [img]/margaux/ind1.jpg[/img]roll out to meet the plane. It’s only a few steps down to the tarmac and destination. No need to plod like a herd of international cattle through a tube bolted to the plane, into a modern, anonymous, climate-controlled arrival lounge. This airport speaks of its country and says, "Yes, you are in India. This could not be Frankfurt, or Chicago." After clearing immigration and customs, we exchanged our money into Indian rupees. A quick count reaffirmed the notorious reputation of the airport moneychangers and I asked for the difference. The teller didn't even bother to feign remorse and mechanically handed over the missing rupees. Presumably, they operate by the law of averages. Once I’d figured out the pay phones, I called Arunima, a friend from my last trip to Calcutta. She insisted we move to her beautiful apartment in the South end, where we were treated to incredible Bengali food and hospitality. Though she and her family made great efforts, Jen-pei couldn't seem to rise to the occasion. Privately, he confessed that India was “a lot dirtier than he expected,” and that Indians “disturbed him.” Publicly, he maintained a sort of forced, mostly silent agreeableness that I think even he began to see through after a few days. Calcutta was in the middle of a horrible pressure system that seemed to trap all of the smog at ground level. Every evening, we blew our noses to clear out the black soot and washed away a fresh coating of unintentional eyeliner. To escape the heat, we went to the large park in the city center and took endless ferry rides along the Hooghly River. After a few days, it was clear the oppressive weather was intent on staying, so we decided to press on. I was wary of the ugliness in Jen-pei’s reactions to India and mentioned separating, but he seemed genuinely scared of being alone. I felt a measure of responsibility for his presence since he’d abandoned his own plans for the beaches of Southern Thailand after I’d persuaded him to give Goa a chance. Photograph by Nana Chen [img]/files/images/transit2.jpg[/img]I went to the train station and after fighting unbelievable crowds – an Indian train station crowd is a phenomenon unto itself as the term "mass of humanity" is given full and obvious expression – confirmed that there were no reserved seats heading west for the next five days. It was the week leading up the Purna Kumbh Mela, which takes place every twelve years in Allahabad. Twenty million people were expected to join the “largest gathering of people in history.” Despite the government adding trains to augment the regular service, securing reserved train tickets would not be possible. Although I knew it would be uncomfortable, I bought two unreserved, second class seats to Varanasi on a train leaving later that evening. With a rush of hurried good-byes, a quick dinner and a fight with Jen-pei: "I'm getting a little tired of this attitude," "I'm getting a little tired of India," we were off. The unreserved class of seating with its hard seats is universally avoided by everyone whose means permit a step up or two in accommodations. Here, people clamour for seats and shove body parts, baggage, children and animals into bizarre, unlikely contortions to lay claim to any available surface area for support. Plagued by a belief in being polite and waiting my turn, I missed out entirely. So, a very bedraggled and by this time, utterly silent Jen-pei and I settled in for the sixteen-hour trip with only our backpacks as comfort. We squatted in the aisle and even though there weren’t any stops for the first two hours, an endless stream of people continuously climbed over us. Then, a large man with an even larger mustache loomed over us and boomed in Bengali-accented English: “These people are guests in our country and we must show them better hospitality than this.” The people and livestock sat unmoved. He then tore into the people directly beside us with what sounded like an extraordinarily violent series of threats. This resulted in much squashing and a pair of postage stamp-sized seats for us. I began with effusive apologies and protests of not wanting preferential treatment, but he silenced me with a wave of his hand. Meanwhile Jen-pei, accustomed to life in over-crowded countries, scrambled for the larger of the two spots. [Continue...] Soon, I was sitting between a desiccated, leathery grandmother, clutching a basket that reeked of fish too long in the sun and a small, ferociously dirty child whose nose ran for the entire duration of the journey. During breaks from wiping at her nose, she thought nothing of resting her hand on my pant leg, which was soon slick with mucus and filth. Our benefactor loudly explained that people were intimidated not only because of his size, but mostly because he could speak English. Even in 2001, this colonial hangover extends and even flourishes among India's poorest. I couldn’t help but think I was missing only a British accent, elephant gun and a solar topi hat. In the end, however, the meager modicum of comfort won out over my feelings of Western guilt. Photograph by Nana Chen [img]/files/images/transit3.jpg[/img]Comfort was to be short lived, however. People continued to crowd on so that eventually, what had been a shockingly over-crowded berth became nightmarishly so. Endless elbows, faces, crotches, stained and dusty salwar kameez, saris, kurtas, even “taboo” feet were thrust in my face and legs, mashing my toes and messing my hair for most of the night. Occasionally, the crowd would settle and sleep almost seemed possible. But then chanting and singing would erupt, as if on cue, and be taken up by most of the passengers. Was this a mantra for the coming Mela? A panacea for discomforts suffered? A popular tune? Or just a way to pass the time: an Indian 99 Bottles of Beer On the Wall? I'll never know and it could have been any or all of the above. Food-wallahs slowly pushed their carts through the packed aisle, repetitively calling out their wares: “Chai, chai, chana masala, mithi pann, chai, chai.” Following them were the beggars. Some were so horribly deformed that they would just thrust a leprotic remnant of a limb at you in hopes that you'd pay to make them leave. After the beggars, came hijiras: men, usually eunuchs, who live and dress as women and make their living blessing newborns and newlyweds. During less auspicious times, they spend their time often being taunted and jeered, while they beg and sing to keep alive. Most normally garrulous Indians don’t seem to enjoy talking about them, and will change the subject more often than not should you raise it. Every so often, I’d catch a glimpse of Jen-pei, virtually catatonic, staring at a fixed point in space. My attempts at conversation were met with silence. With each jolt of the train, a new body part or item of clothing would obscure him from view, so I soon gave up altogether and almost forgot him entirely. All the while Mukesh, the large-mustached English-speaking Bihari (a state other Indians regard with distaste as it is one of the nation’s poorest and "contains bandits," they'll quickly divulge) shared the story of his various difficulties. He was an engineer, as a disproportionate number of Indians seem to be, and he spent his time commuting from his village to Calcutta, and occasionally Lucknow, trying to secure a job. In the meantime, he was living off of his parents, a fact that seemed to bother him quite a bit. Each time that I nodded off only to immediately snap back awake, Mukesh would be waiting, eager to continue our conversation. His marriage predicament was particularly interesting. He was Muslim, but his "forward-thinking" father raised him in a secular way. He shaved his beard and was even — he deigned to share — uncircumcised. This put him at odds among both Hindus, who see him as hopelessly Muslim, and Muslims who find him physically inconsistent with their practices and beliefs. He explained that though he had many girlfriends, some of a commercial nature, he remained without prospects for marriage. Finally, I did nod off for an hour or so, only to be woken again by Mukesh who couldn't leave without a proper goodbye. I groggily thanked him for his help, deflected his repeated insistences that we accompany him to his village, and wished him good luck in his efforts at securing employment and a suitable bride. As a pink-orange sun rose above the flat Gangetic plain and temperatures rapidly climbed into the 40's, most of the train unloaded as some of the millions of pilgrims headed off for Allahabad. An hour or so later, we arrived in Varanasi, overwrought and exhausted. Shortly after finding a room, we parted to explore the city separately. The City of Light, as Varanasi is also known, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth. The roads are a warren of dark winding passageways, slick with the ubiquitous holy cow shit and discarded refuse. While not as populous as Calcutta or Bombay (13 million and 16 million people, respectively), it seems more densely packed than either city. It is the holiest spot on earth for Hindus, as both Shiva's earthly domain and the preferred site to die. Apparently, if you die here, you’re released for eternity from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The city flanks the enormous and filthy Ganges River. If you die on the "wrong" side of the Ganges, lore has it that you’re doomed to return as a donkey. People naturally exercise greater caution while there, and while one bank is sprawling Varanasi, the other is a muddy expanse, unbroken by even a hut. The Ganges sees activity from before dawn to well after midnight. In the morning, the clothes-wallahs pound out laundry and lay it out to dry along the many ghats (steps) while others perform daily prayers and ablutions. The river is used for washing, teeth brushing, defecating, and a receptacle for the ashes of the dead. [Continue...] [img]/files/images/transit4.jpg[/img]Two of the ghats are outdoor crematoriums where fires blaze continuously twenty-four hours a day. They give off a steady source of smoke and ash that curls out and mingles into the paler grey of the water. Some people cannot be burned according to religious code; infants, the physically disabled and others are dumped into the river, amid great ceremony, to join the bloated corpses of animals (mostly cows and dogs) that cannot be cremated either. Through this, you can catch the occasional Gangetic dolphin breaking the murky surface. Despite this macabre cornucopia, during parts of the day, and in certain lights, the Ganges does look beautiful. On my last afternoon there, I sat down near an Agori Babu, a kind of holy man or sadhu. The dread-locked Agori Babus watch over the second, and less prestigious burning ghat, clad only in filth and ash and the occasional loincloth. They’re also known among the back-packer crowd for being perennially high and sometimes generous with their hash. He did not disappoint and offered up his chillum or hash pipe, to a Korean tourist and me. We took turns puffing away and making up a common sign language to say: “Varanasi, yes. Chillum, good.” Despite the beauty of Varanasi — the candle rafts offered in prayer to the great mother-river, the proximity to life and death and the noisy, fiery, hypnotic rituals, gorgeous sunrises, and cheap accommodation — the city and I had what I believe will be our last acquaintance. This time, the city felt oppressively eerie. This time, I just wanted a bit of fun on a sandy beach in Goa. I made a small donation to the Babu, as much for the hash as “for the wood” (cremations), and then hazily made my way back to the hotel, with thoughts of making peace with Jen-pei and heading for Goa. I found him at the hotel and we decided to have tea at a nearby shop. Even though we’d shared the room, we hadn’t really talked during our time in the city. The time apart was enough for us to both relax and see each other through the expectations and disappointments that hung like clouds in the air between us. We spoke of plans in singular, future tenses that left no doubt that this was goodbye. As the light in the teahouse dimmed and yellow and green geckos emerged from the shadows to chase each other across the ceiling above our heads, we forgave each other and meant, for a moment, to keep in touch. That night our room was filled with sounds of Hindu rituals and Muslim calls to prayer from the Golden Temple and the main Majid (Mosque) of Varanasi. The sound of monkeys playing with the window latch mingled with the rustlings of mice that lived as unwanted roommates in the alcove directly behind the bed. As we packed our things in preparation for the next day’s departure, we communicated as polite strangers. Finally, we lay down to sleep on far sides of the bed. [img]/files/images/transit5.jpg[/img]Trips are as much about places as they are about the people you meet along the way. There are people and places that we return to again and again until they become part of our life’s map. While to others we are no more than tourists: only visiting, imagining them as we would have them be. Note: As part of a nation-wide wave of Hindu nationalism, many Colonial Era names have been changed since 2000. Dum Dum International Airport in Calcutta (now Kolkatta) was renamed Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport. Despite his frequent clashes with Gandhi and his brief alliance with Nazi Germany, Bose is a cherished national hero, especially in his native state of West Bengal. His death in a 1945 plane crash makes the renaming ironic in a way that is so often found in India.