On a journey to ‘discover’ myself, or at least try and escape the blur and whirl of dead-end jobs and lacklustre ambition, I decided to embark on a trip to India, jewel of the now defunct British Empire. I had hoped that such a voyage could liberate my restlessness, give some catharsis to the plague of self-obsession and stagnation that consumed me throughout the tortuous years of my twenties. Some prosper during this time, others flop. I was the latter by far. To a large extent, the trip solved this. I came home after almost four months of travel, elated and enthused to further extend my boundaries. The trip was not without its fair share of horrors, nor should it be when in India or a similarly chaotic country. I did not have the wondrous experiences of Christopher Kremmer or William Dalrymple, drawn from the well pool of their extensive contacts, research and scholarly insights. Nor did I possess the selfie stick that granted ‘baldandbankrupt’– that itinerant YouTube blogger – the ability to visually document the hidden wonders and darker realms of that gargantuan country, thus finding a way to fund future travels. Armed only with an outdated Lonely Planet (ten years will reshape a country undergoing such rapid modernisation) and a head full of romantic notions, I touched down at Delhi airport in late June 2018, as the searing heat and oncoming monsoon season pushed the temperatures into the high forties, accompanied by near one hundred percent humidity. The spiritual journey had begun.
The early stages of the trip may have turned out quite differently had it not been for a nasty little scam I fell into, out of naivety, at the front of Delhi airport. Sharply halting as the last vapours of the airport’s air conditioning disappeared, stranding me in the stupefying heat, I stepped backwards and breathed sharply, sending hot dust and fumes deep into the lungs. After throwing my bag into what I imagined to have been a government taxi, which suspiciously did not possess the same markings of the newer fleet behind it, my driver and I set off towards Paharganj, where I had booked one night at a hostel in order to cushion the landing a little. Halfway through, the driver demanded to ring the hostel and find the exact address. After talking with him in Hindi a short while, the driver passed my phone back to me. The hostel owner had cancelled the booking due to a group deciding to stay an extra night. As such, my bed was forfeited without a pause. Deeply sorry for any inconvenience caused. If I had not been so glazed by the heat, I might have noticed the driver’s eyes sparkle at the sudden vulnerability of his now hostel-less passenger. He told me that this was no matter, we can head into a government tourist office and they would promptly sort out the situation. Well, this ‘tourist office’ was, of course, a hole-in-the-wall shop commandeered by two overly energetic young men, goading me in with a copper-plated ashtray and a shot glass of chai, my first of innumerable to come. Platitudes and pleasantries swiftly turned to business as they began to push a series of deals onto me. I told them that I just wished to stay a few days in Delhi, to which they waved their hands away. Delhi was too crowded, there was a festival on in Paharganj at the moment, you must go to Rajasthan and explore the forts in a grand tour. I stood up, sweat trickling from the forehead as I sank down a third chai. I grabbed my bag and attempted to stand. Four thick-fingered hands pushed me down promptly and I turned around now to find another three men in the room, who must have glided in from some hidden crevice during the ‘negotiations’. The driver sat there, amused while he stretched out over a two-seated couch, obviously waiting for his share of the plunder. A sharp breath and slow exhalation were all I could arm myself with for the next round of discussions. After a declaration of lack of funds for this ‘grand tour’, I said I would settle for a series of train tickets around Rajasthan, which cost, as I found out later, roughly ten times what I would have paid had I bought the tickets myself. What position was I in to argue?
The next phase of the scam then began. They pushed me to leave the following day, then claimed that the only hotel they could find in the city was forty US a night, due to this ‘festival’. They consigned to me a driver, thus ensuring I wouldn’t go to the police, and sent me out to the rough outer suburbs in a dank, dark hotel. The next morning, the driver gave a fleeting tour around Chandni Chowk, allowing me a quick walk through the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, but wouldn’t ‘let’ me wander the alleyways of Old Delhi, which I so desperately wished to do. I had spent long, shuttering train rides back to Wollongong after labouring in Sydney, crushed amidst fellow commuters while pouring over City of Djinns, and yet here I was, too heat struck and, honestly, culture struck to mount a defence, tell the driver to fuck off, grab my bag and restart the adventure on my own terms. Having spent so much on those damn train tickets, I felt compelled to allow the driver to drop me off at Old Delhi station and wait for the Bikaner Express, finally being rid of the tourist mafia.
Waving off the hawkers at the entrance to the station, all of whom wished to see my ticket and declare its illegitimacy, or the unexplained cancellation of the train, I pushed my way into the grimy throng of the station, which would have been cooking at around fifty degrees with high humidity. My eyes began to glaze over in the frenetic pace of the station, groups unrelentingly barging through while I ducked and weaved between the currents. I tried to match the pace but the heat was beginning to overwhelm me, sweat now a constant trickle from hair, forehead, temple and neck. As a child sufferer of heatstroke, I had learned to pace myself in the sun, but this heat combined with the humidity was something neither my hometown nor Wollongong possessed. Collapsing down on the floor of my platform, after a few moments I was rapped on the knee by a police officer’s lathi, who told me to stand and show him my ticket. I was looking a little ragged, I supposed, and India did not seem to be that welcoming haven for the hippie that it may have been in the sixties. Now, it seemed to me, in order to be respected by the community, one needed to cultivate a little dress sense. He stared hard at my ticket and kicked my bag, demanding that I open it for inspection. I unzipped the bag with shaky fingers – the heatstroke was entering a new phase – and the officer began rifling through the contents, throwing clothes and books onto the filthy floor. After he was convinced I did not possess…whatever I was supposed to possess – guns, drugs, a small rail side bomb – he glared at me and ordered for me to repack my bag. Others waiting on the platform – mostly large families of Indians – stared in silence while I slowly pushed my paltry collection of items into the backpack. Then, as we approached the hour (5 p.m. was the supposed departure time) a female voice reigned over the din on the platform.
‘The 5 p.m. Bikaner Express is delayed by approximately one hour. Any inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.’
By 7 p.m., still waiting for this damn train, I was starting to get delirious. It just would not cool down. The rusted tin covering the myriad platforms radiated that raw urban heat into the meld below. I was on the verge of fainting when a newcomer onto the platform saw me suffering and told me that, as I possessed a second-class ticket, I could sit in the waiting room with a fan. Naivety and ignorance always getting in the way of practical solutions.
With trembling hands, I cradled my throbbing head while the two fans above filtered down some slight relief. I seriously contemplated the fact that I was about to die from heat exhaustion, with strange chills and hallucinations drifting in and out of my feverish body and mind. Not the ideal place to go out, I recalled thinking amidst a confused reel of images and half-dreams. A young Bengali photographer, all slick and full of exploits, told me about his recent journeys in the Himalayas with other awesome friends, such an amazing experience etc…. When I told him that I wasn’t well, suffering from overheating, he shrugged his shoulders and moved to a different seat. Another statistic, why give a shit? A German guy then sat near me with hash-glazed eyes that seemed to cultivate a thousand-yard stare of pure ecstasy. He had travelled India for two years, was completely broke and hit me up for five dollars, just to survive the next couple of nights before he headed back home. Having travelled overland, through central Asia and Pakistan, he had little to tell me of this trip. Perhaps I wasn’t on his ‘level’ enough to divulge details. Perhaps his English wasn’t good enough to describe at length his travels. Perhaps he just smoked too much ganga and forgot to remember his journey. The most likely reason was that I was not the most compelling conversationalist at that present time, ashen-faced and constantly pausing to complain how fucked I felt. Asking others for information on their phones regarding the Bikaner Express’ status, I was lucky a young Indian couple from Lucknow downloaded a useful app onto my phone, then proceeded to invite me to their hometown, offering a bed and dinner as well as a tour around their city. An old, keen-eyed gentleman next to them listened intently, then sent the young guy to go and buy me a bottle of cold water, telling me I was a guest here and should be treated accordingly. Such kindness always seemed to appear at the lowest moments, as I found throughout my trip. India was a country of contrasts. As we approached midnight, the heatstroke faded and my nicotine cravings returned. Once they had passed beyond a mere irritability, I decided to walk outside the station and have a smoke.
Turning the corner and walking out the gates, I was met by a huge sea of coloured bundles stretched out over the floor; hundreds, maybe even a couple thousand people were feigning to wait for a train while they found refuge from Delhi’s streets. Faces hidden under stained saris. Babies cradled in cloth to protect from flies. In the corners wizened men lay staring at me, gaunt and sallow-skinned in the shadows. Their reprieve proved to be short-lived. Three vans pulled up while I attempted to weave through the bodies and a group of policemen poured out with their lathis, proceeding to beat the shit out of the homeless, particularly those unfortunate enough to be on the outer rim of the throng. An older man was struck repeatedly on his head until he slumped, blood oozing from a gash running through his tattered locks onto the tiles. He did not move again. I could do nothing more than watch on helplessly as the homeless folk gathered together to barricade themselves against the police. What could I do? Some were born, cruelly, to the endless night. A couple of others lay twisted, motionless, on the floor while the officers continued to scream and strike the stragglers. After a while, they hopped into the van and drove off. The station master and his employees came around and poked at the motionless victims on the floor, while the others watched them silently from the corner where they attempted to shield themselves from the police. Realising that they were dead, he ordered the employees to drag the bodies away for a collection the following morning.
I went outside to have a cigarette in the fetid night air, a strange blend of engine exhaust, raw sewage and rot. I was shaken by what I had just witnessed. In some kind of horror trance, I was shocked by two guys stumbling up and yelling something to me in slurred Hindi. Each swaggered around with a bottle of beer, trying to push it to my lips. People passing into the station stopped to watch the escapade as I kept pushing them off. After they left me alone, an older man shook his head and, gesturing with his thumb and pinkie a glugging motion, issued forth a ‘No, no, no’ followed by an admonitory waggle of his finger. The boys tumbled away into the haze of night, and another pair of young men, decidedly more enterprising, attempted to engage me. Both stood barely up to my shoulder and began to press me to stay a night in their hostel. All the beer and ganga I wanted was at my fingertips, with great music by the venerable Bieber, the younger one’s idol. He had even styled his hair in imitation of that manufactured songster. The older guy, talking over the younger one’s feverish renditions of Bieber’s songs, tried to sell me multiple funeral insurance plans, giving me his business information in an attempt to extend his clientele to Australia. I gave them a cigarette each – they were keen to try the Benson and Hedges I had bought before leaving – then crossed the street to buy a chai. While waiting in the queue, a police patrol car came past and flashed the siren. The shop immediately turned off its lights, while the keeper hurried over to the police with a wad of cash, with which the car immediately took off again. Business resumed. My first sighting of the famed baksheesh, performed with such flagrancy.
The boys had already disappeared. While I stood back out the front of the station, another fellow sauntered up to me, barefoot and wild-eyed. Here we go. He surprised me with his excellent English, inquiring as to why I was standing out the front of Old Delhi station at three in the morning, especially as to why I was doing it alone. He was a lovely man, and we talked about a range of things – literature, politics, music, history – before he, like all the rest, bade adieu and disappeared into the brown Delhi mist. One of the few Hindu men I met that was highly critical of Modi, the superhero with a 100-inch chest. He despised the divisive, populist and anti-intellectual impulses of the BJP, predicting a dark phase for India’s socio-economic and political conditions if they were voted back into power (which, naturally, they were by a landslide). Of course, he was a singular voice of dissent. The majority of Hindu Indians I met were either cast in a feverish glow when talking about Modi, or else with a smug smile acknowledged his greatness. An unhealthy obsession with anyone is, well, unhealthy¸ and the ways in which the Indians viewed Modi were strange, cultish and quite sickening, for the man shares more in common with Hitler than Gandhi. Anyways, the app now told me, at 4:40 in the morning, that the Bikaner Express would finally arrive in fifty minutes, a cool twelve and a half hours late. It had been such a strange series of events in the last forty-eight, let alone the last twelve hours, that I was looking forward to a long and fruitful sleep on the bunkbed. The train rolled in slowly at 5:30, and I gratefully hopped on.
Having closed my eyes briefly, without even unfolding the sheets provided, I received a sharp jab on the leg. The train conductor was standing there next to a policeman, both glowering at me.
‘You are in the wrong bed! You must get out now and move to the right one. Quickly, quickly!’
I knew this was bullshit. I pulled out my ticket and showed them both the evidence. The policeman glanced at it and said something to the conductor. The conductor grabbed my bag and stood outside the hallway, waiting for me. I sighed and rolled off the bunk – there was no one else in the dormitory to bear witness to this, naturally – and turned to look at the policeman busying himself around the dorm with his own gear. He saw me staring, then walked up, and, without taking his eyes off me, pulled the curtains to a close. As welcoming a gesture as I had come to expect from this country so far. I shamefully fought back tears at this stage, overwhelmed with tiredness and culture shock, then let them silently sail down my face as I lay on the new bed, allowing the general chatter of the other passengers to wash over me as I drifted, spinning, into a dense sleep. I awoke refreshed and with new resolve to not capitulate, knowing such things were so miniscule in the greater context of travel and life in general. A few hardships can actually be a blessing, especially when you learn to live with your own company (absolutely crucial for a sustainable adulthood) as well as recognise that people truly do suffer in life (not in itself a blessing of course, but such realisations can turn you away from being or becoming a selfish prick). If anything else, that introduction to India hardened me for the next few months.