The bus to Katmandu

Indian travels

On yer bike - The bus to Katmandu

Darjeeling steam train

Black hole of Calcutta

Part 6 - 10 March - 17 March 1993

Tony and Martin

Dear Yogis. Got any new diseases recently? Reckon I have - its called living in Calcutta, but more of that later when I get a break from s(h)itting on the toilet.

Sorry, these letters are getting rather sporadic in their appearance. I started writing one to Sherlock about Pakistan; my experience there having been s memorial that I was easily inspired to write one and a half paragraphs. Now I've been in India for a lifetime so this could be my last opportunity to muster sufficient brain cells together before total lethargy takes a firm hold of me or else the vulture perched on my left shoulder pecks my right eye out. Still, having endured zealous Sheiks, riots, erotic stone masonry, burning bodies, slums, beggars and Indian tea along the way, I'm actually beginning to like the place!

GuruGoing back to the beginning of the story, we (me and the other John) legged it over the border from Pakistan just as it was closing, and fighting off over-enthusiastic porters, managed to squeeze through the barriers just as they swung shut, falling in a breathless heap on Indian soil. A rather leisurely taxi ride later in a decrepit Morris Oxford and we'd struck Amritsar, holy city of Sheiks and the Golden temple. The temple is pretty neat. You can stay in the adjacent cattle shed for nothing and get a free bowl of slop for dinner thus partaking of Sheik hospitality. Actually, the Sheiks are a right colourful bunch, baggy underpants, long greasy hair and gaudy bangles and bracelets. The steel bracelet actually doubles up as a great bottle opener which is a possible explanation of why the Punjab where most of the Sheiks come from as the highest alcohol consumption of any state in India.

Once inside the temple building, the atmosphere begins to grab hold of you. First you line up for your free bowl full of slop, then you're supposed to offer half of the already pitifully small portion to some guru geezer sitting inside the heart of the inner sanctum of the golden-clad temple of worship. To ensure that you don' desist, you are automatically carried along by the column of Sheik zealots which inches down the causeway which is the only path in and is drawn by the hypnotic music sounding continuously from the towers in front. What the guru does with all the slop he gets every day is a good question - probably sells it on the black market to the GLC (Greater London Council) for school diners.

Near to the temple lies a serene and peaceful park known as Jollianwala park. Entering the narrow alleyway which is the only way in and out, it is difficult to fail to notice a large enamelled sign. Halfway down, by-law 7.2 f the Amritsar town council rules and regulations for the park states categorically:- It is an offence to let off firearms within the park boundaries; max. penalty 100 Rupees. Obviously the British can't read too well because in 1919 they shot dead or wounded more than 1500 Indians in the same spot.

Two days later in New Delhi we ran into a minor riot. The JNP (militant Hindu party) wanted to hold a major rally and the police wanted some coshing practice. Not silly little truncheons either, but a lot of whacking with thick meter and a half long bamboo clubs. When they got bored with that, they started on the passing cycle-rickshaws with stick in the spokes.

The Taj Mahal was quite beautiful even if the throngs of ageing Japanese surrounding it weren't. Deep in the candle lit basement where the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal lies, wife of the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan who died in 1629, the over loud voice of an somewhat obese American boomed over the heads of the other figures fumbling in the semi-darkness. "Is this where Mrs Ghandi is buried?"

I was now once again a solo traveller as John departed in the direction of Rajestan. I wanted to visit the famous temples of Khajaraho. The fact that they were rather inaccessible was a curse to me, yet this had also saved them from destruction at the hand of the invading Muslims who certainly would have regarded the erotic carvings with some disdain. Its the decorative sculptures with which the temples are so liberally embellished that are so well known. They portray many aspects of Indian life 1000 years ago, Gods and Goddesses, ploughing the fields, wars and music and so on. Most of all they portray sex. There's an amazing variety of positions and combinations, a sort of Kama Sutra in stone! Some of them look like sheer agony though. There's even one gentleman who is proving that a horse is really man's best friend.

Apart from erotic stone masonry, Khajaraho is als home to some of India's greatest con men.” Gems for resale in the West at lucrative profits and silver to make your fortune on in Thailand. I had the satisfaction of conning a conman. In the hope of a highly profitable deal, I was wined and dined and taken on a free day long tour of all the sights, after which I returned to the shop and proceeded to drink all the alcohol in stock whilst “uming and aaring” over the quality before disappearing merrily off to my hotel with a cheery “Think about it and see you tomorrow.” Next morning, I took the first bus out of town...

Apart from a final resting place for ageing hippies, India of course provides home to a kaleidoscope of colourful religions. One of the most far out of these are the Jains. These come in several varieties, all of which are veggie freaks. The really orthodox brand known as the Digambara, in their efforts to eschew all material possessions spend all day walking around b_ll__cks naked apart from a small piece of cloth covering their mouths, This being lest they should be rendered guilty of desecrating the sanctity of life by accidentally swallowing a fly. Not many Digambaras are to be observed working in the local supermarket. They have however become extremely rich mainly as a result of the vast amount of money saved by not having to buy Y-fronts and mosquito coils. Jain temples, not to mention their customs are equally hip. Totally clad internally in small mirror tiles mosaic fashion, they provide the ideal place for the devotees of Jainism to ponce around naked admiring the pimples on each other's bottoms. The Jain gods get to join in the fun too – they're represented by large nudy marble statues including all the naughty bits with which “Action Man” was never endowed with! Jains have a strange fetish for urine too. Being one of the sacred fluids pertaining to the existence of life, this valuable substance gets recycled as a thirst quenching drink (pee on the rocks?) and a soap and water substitute for face washing.

A couple of nights in cheap Indian hovels (hotels) soon renders any attempt at retaining sanity totally useless. A night spent in Jhansi, a small backwater slum on the way to Khajaraho began unusually peacefully with a pack of scrappy dogs and squealing pigs fighting it out for the last potato peelings from the evening market stalls. Several leprous beggars banged heavily on the flimsy front door of the hotel, hands flying in all directions. A yogi began a long series of incessant chants as thin wisps of sickly sweet-smelling smoke curled their way through the hotel corridors. The short bot-bellied character complete with embroidered cap who I'd seen entering the adjacent room earlier seemed to think that the world deserved to hear him squawking out of tune to a popular film sound-track on the radio. Things were returning to normal and I felt finally relaxed enough to drift into the lower state of consciousness known as sleep.

Falling out of the train onto the platform at Varanassi provided an escape from one of the horrors of India, the dreaded “unreserved” 2nd class night train. Unlike the reserved version which at least represents an attempt at civilised transport, travelling unreserved means a fight to the last teapot with half the population of India for a spot to park one's bum, the other half of the population of India having squeezed into the next coach. That's only the start, there's still the Chai Wallahs (tea boys), boot polish wallahs, beggars, peanut wallahs, ticket inspectors, army checkpoint men and chewing gum wallahs still to come. Add to this the rattling fans, greenhouse humidity and overflowing toilets and the scene is complete. This effect can best be simulated by sitting in a tumble drier with 14 of your mates and a kilogram of flies with the controls set to 'hot tumble'. Then get your mother in law to bang on the round window and shout “chaaaai, chai chai” continuously for 17 hours. What's really insulting is that you're even expected to pay for the privilege of travelling this way!

Still at least I'd made it to Varanassi, one of the most important places of pilgrimage in the Hindu world. I just wondered that as Varanessi is the ultimate destination in the life of many a Hindu, the spot where one comes to be burnt on one's merry way to the next life, whether there would be anything left of my body too before I left. 

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To be continued later.

P.s Sorry, but if I write any more, the paper won't fit into the envelope!

P.p.s Try and survive Queen's day.

P.p.p.s Try and survive Queen's day.

P.p.p.p.s. Ask Dave how his Turkish lessons are going?