Increasingly of late, and particularly when I drink, I find my thoughts drawn into the past rather than impelled into the future. I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of my earlier student days in England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi.
What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.
From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, Vikram Seth
At home, in Shanghai, I have stuck 120 of my photographs to the living room wall. The pictures, now a little discoloured by the late afternoon sun, chart my overland journey, in 2006 and 2007, from London to Shanghai. The first is of the Thames on an overcast day. The next is of mountains and sea on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. The photographs move quickly on, left to right, top to bottom, through western Europe, the Middle East, India, Nepal and eventually China.
Most are of scenery, sites, and the people Claire and I encountered en route, but near the bottom I have stuck a picture of myself, sitting on a train station platform. It is often the photograph that visitors comment on first, intrigued, perhaps, by the raw anger written upon my face.
The picture was taken in Gorakhpur, a city in northern India. Its railway station is the country’s largest broad gauge junction and is as close to the Nepali border as you can travel by train. Claire and I arrived there after a month in Nepal. Although we would eventually travel into China from Kathmandu, we had come back to India to meet my family, scheduled to arrive in Calcutta, 816 kilometres away, in a little over a week.
It was the middle of summer – monsoon season – and returning to India’s plains after time in the Himalaya’s cool foothills felt like a descent into hell. We planned to ride a train from Gorakhpur to the tea plantations of Darjeeling and to travel the short distance from there to Calcutta a few days later.
Our bus from the Nepali border, 90 kilometres away, arrived at Gorakhpur’s train station late at night. The journey had taken four hours. For a stretch of a few kilometres, there had been no road. At any sharp ascent or descent, passengers were asked to get out and walk.
Even at night, the train station seethed. In the parking lot outside, under the station’s bright lights, passengers in transit had set up camp. Blankets were laid over the tarmac and, on them, whole families slept. In places, the smoke of chula stoves rose above the mess of bodies. Women squatted beside them, cooking chapatti, an Indian flatbread.
We had slept in Gorakphur before, on our way out of India, and returned to the same hotel. Our room was cheap and dirty. Lying on the bed’s stained sheets, you felt as if you might wake up to find that the matter thriving on the floor and walls had grown in the night, to suffocate you. The hotel was redeemed by its restaurant. It stank of ghee, but served buttery khali dhal and delicate parathas. The tables were on a terrace overlooking the station. Train whistles, distant conversations and echoing announcements wove a tangible roar; like India’s heavy air, it blanketed diners, and gave a sense of the momentum of countless lives below; an inkling of the mind-boggling scale of India’s population.
The next day, we went to buy tickets. Ten minutes after the ticket office opened, lines already stretched to the back of its large hall. At most Indian train stations, there is a ticket window reserved for women, foreign tourists, journalists and members of the state legislature. We found it at the opposite end of the hall. Although the other lines were only a little longer, we went to the back and began our wait. After about half an hour, a second line started to develop at the same window. The people in the second queue – all men – waved ten rupee notes and jostled the people in the first – all women, except for me – to compete for the ticket clerk’s attention.
The clerk began to alternate her service. A man was served, his ten rupees taken before he said a word, then a woman was served. We moved forward slowly, and eventually, near the front of the much shorter first queue, drew up alongside the second. I asked the man next to me – fat, with oily hair and a thick gold chain around his thick neck – if he was a journalist. He laughed, revealing a mouth full of paan. “Are you a journalist?” I persisted. “Or part of the government?”
He pointed a stubby finger at his chest and said, “I VIP!”
Claire joined in. “A VIP? What do you mean, you’re a VIP? This isn’t a line for VIPs. It’s a line for women, tourists, journalists and members of the state legislature.” She pointed at the sign above the ticket window, “Look! Read the sign!”
The man seemed a little perturbed by Claire’s aggression – she was, after all, a woman, and nobody else in the queue had said anything – but he laughed again, turned around, and made an effort to ignore us.
The line inched along and we were, eventually, second from the front, with the man still beside us. He had, by now, slipped a ten rupee note between his index and middle fingers, ready to fight for service at the front. After many months in India, I should have been able to let him go. I should have allowed him to buy his ticket because there was, really, nothing I could do, and trying to prevent him would only make buying our own take longer. Instead, when the person in front of us finished paying and he leapt ahead of us, I pulled the money from his hand.
The man turned. He pressed his stomach against me and started to shout. Spittle tinged red by paan flew from his mouth. We traded mutually unintelligible insults, but the man had already won. I might have his money, but he had wedged his body between me and the ticket desk. Nobody was going to buy a ticket before he did. I threw his money back at him. He paid, first the bribe, then the ticket price, and walked off smugly.
The ticket clerk was middle aged. She wore glasses and had woven her grey hair into a long plait. Years spent serving an endless line had reduced her words and movements to the utmost economy. We produced a form, the name of the train we wanted, our destination and desired class, as well as our own details written on it. She pulled it through the hole between counter and window and, without acknowledging us, began to punch station codes and dates into her terminal.
“No tickets,” she said. “Tickets for Siliguri are sold out until next week.” The woman pushed the form back out, her eyes already moving past us, to the next in line.
“Are there any trains to Calcutta?” I asked.
More keys were punched. “No, not this week.”
Claire and I stood there, stunned, as the person behind us wriggled past. We had waited in the queue for over an hour and were about to leave empty handed. Worse still, we were stuck in Gorakhpur.
A travel agent near out hotel suggested an awkward route – a train, a connecting bus and another train – to Siliguri. It was hideously expensive, by Indian standards, and involved a long, looping detour as well as an uncomfortable wait. The first train would leave that evening. We’d arrive in Siliguri two and a half days later and, once there, would still have to find our way up to Darjeeling.
I suggested going instead to Varanasi, only 120 kilometres away, hoping we could more easily buy a ticket to Siliguri there. Claire wasn’t sure. Varanasi was equally hot, we were visiting it with my family anyway, and we might, once there, find ourselves in exactly the same position. Stuck. But she agreed to go back to the station, to see if tickets to Varanasi were available, while I checked us out of the hotel.
An hour later, I was sitting at the hotel’s restaurant, surrounded by bags, when Claire returned, clutching two tickets to Varanasi. Our train was leaving in an hour and a half. We had just enough time for lunch.
I ordered. Our food arrived almost an hour later. Daytime service, it seemed, was slow. We ate quickly and, now late, ran through the hotel, down one flight of stairs, then a second, then – THUD – my head connected with a low arch. I fell, landed on my backpack, and lay dazed on the floor.
Pain led to anger. Claire came back to ask if I was okay. “Yes,” I snapped, but told her to leave me alone. I stood up and vented a little by hitting the arch. At home, I am taller than the average doorframe, and duck almost instinctively at thresholds. India’s doorways are lower. Although I had adjusted quickly by ducking a little further down, no uniform height seems to exist, so an instinctive duck often meant hitting my head harder.
We carried on, running again, out of the hotel, past roadside restaurants, thick with touts, through the people encamped in the parking lot and onto platform one, where we found a blackboard and, on it, the number of our train and the platform from which it was scheduled to depart. It said platform six, so to platform six we went.
There was a train at the platform, but it was a mail train, with sleeper cars and different classes. We were expecting a local, stop service, with only third class seats. I asked a man on the platform if the train was going to Varanasi. He said yes. I asked somebody else. He waggled his head, a gesture of maddening ambiguity, and repeated Varanasi. I asked another man. He said no, we should be on platform four.
We trusted the third man and ran to platform four, but found it empty, although our train was scheduled to depart in under ten minutes and began in Gorakhpur. We asked the people on the opposite platform. Some said yes, a train to Varanasi was due to arrive soon, some said no, some waggled their heads. One man suggested platform one, another platform five.
There were station attendants at platform one, we reasoned, who could give us a definitive answer. So we ran back to the first platform, where I questioned the guards inspecting tickets at the platform entrance. They pointed to the chalkboard that had begun us on our search. We found an information desk, but nobody at it. Again, we were left asking people on the platform. More vague yes’s and no’s and maybes.
I felt as though my mind might snap. Our train, the only train we had been able to buy tickets for, was scheduled to depart in less than five minutes, but we didn’t know from where and neither, it seemed, did anybody else. Frustration had made my head hot, and I could feel angry tears welling up. After the relative placidity of Nepal, I was not happy to be back in India.
Then a man who spoke excellent English said, with absolute confidence, that our train was departing from platform one. It hadn’t arrived at the platform yet, but he was certain. We threw our bags off and, drenched in sweat, sat down.
It was then that Claire, our camera slung over her shoulder, decided to take a photo. My jaw is clenched, my forehead creased and my eyes black. I am staring straight at the camera’s lens. The people on the platform are watching me, perhaps wondering why I am making no effort to pose.
It is these details that people notice when looking at the photograph on my living room wall. And a few days later, reviewing the pictures on the camera’s screen, I probably saw the same scene, but I now notice more. I notice our yoga mat, carried in a green bag, lying on the platform, and the bag Claire used obsessively, to carry a water bottle, beside it. I notice my hair, long and sun-lightened, and the copper bracelet around my left wrist, which I lost a few months after arriving in Shanghai. I notice my clean shaven face, and think of India’s barbers. I discover people asleep in the background, Hindi written on the walls and the garish clothes worn by the man next to me. In short, I very quickly become nostalgic.
Claire had not yet packed the camera away when the loudspeaker above us crackled to life. “Train 5004 to Varanasi will be departing shortly from platform A. Passengers for this train please board now.”
“Platform A?” I shouted at Claire. We were already standing. I had thrown my backpack over one shoulder, picked up my daypack and started moving. The train was scheduled to depart in two minutes. “Platform A?” I asked one man, then another. They pointed to an area behind the station building. We started to run – fast, carrying 50 kilograms of luggage, including a laptop and a small library of books – and arrived at platform A with seconds to spare. The train was still there. We swung up onto the last carriage, found a seat and heaved a very big sigh of relief. Five minutes later, the train left the station.
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