India 3: Jamming with the Gods

At 6 AM on a Saturday morning, I clambered into an autorickshaw for a freezing, exhaust-laden journey across pre-dawn Delhi, landing at New Delhi station half an hour before my train. Touts attached themselves to me like magnets before I even reached the building, but I stomped on: an electronic display clearly showed that Shatabdi (check) number 2018 (check) to Dehradun (check) was leaving from platform 2, so there I went, and indeed the train to Dehradun was waiting. Here was the sign for coach C7… but under it was wagon S16, containing 2nd-class sleepers, not AC chair cars. I walked the insanely long train (there must’ve been a good 30 cars) from end to end twice, not finding a single matching wagon, and asking a guy in uniform only produced an embarrassed handwave of “in that direction”. Announcements blared non-stop, but they seemed to say something about the Dehradun Shatabdi leaving from platform 11… which, I realized with a sickening feeling, was half a kilometer and a huge scrum of people away. I barged my way through, opting for the unlabeled platform between “8/9” and “12”, but the train there wasn’t mine. Only 5 minutes remained until departure and I crossed the platform: “Shatabdi”, said the sign, but to where? How do you spell “Dehradun” in Devanagari? I speedwalked onward — A/C chair car! Number 6! DEHRADUN! — and clambered aboard to claim my seat. I just about had time to catch my breath before it lurched off.

Most of the next 4.5 hours were taken up by food, brought piece by piece by bow-tied waiters balancing stacks of trays. First newspapers, then a big bottle of water, a round of tea and biscuits, then some toast, butter and gummi bear jam, a package of mango juice, some more tea, then two mashed potato croquettes with a few token peas and french fries, all spiced up with a small cockroach, a spider and an ant clambering past my seat. I munched on these goodies and stared out the window at the Indian countryside, vast rows of cow patties neatly lined up to dry near the tracks, swarthy, turbaned men trundling past fields on bullock carts, women in flourescent saris carrying jugs of water on their heads, little kids with shirts hiked up and nothing underneath shitting by the side of the track. As the train marched onward Delhi’s haze gradually lessened and countryside slowly grew greener and greener.

I arrived at Haridwar‘s station and halfheartedly haggled with a cyclerickshaw driver to take me to Hotel Teerth. After following the main road for a while, he plunged off into an incredibly dense bazaar, much too small for even an autorickshaw, much less a car, banners swiping again my head as he pedaled onward through the twisty alleys. He parked the cycle and motioned me to follow on foot, past a small herd of holy cows munching on offerings of grass, suddenly popping out on a ghat by the side of the Ganges. There was my hotel, and after a moment of confusion they even managed to find my e-mailed attempt at a reservation (or, more probably, kicked out somebody who wasn’t paying rack rate).

Teerth is a thoroughly nondescript midrange hotel where the rooms have just one redeeming feature: balconies with views over the Ganges, the riverside pier of Subhash Ghat below and the holy bathing spot of Hari-ki-Pauri just a stone’s throw away. I must’ve spent hours up there, just watching the endless parade of pilgrims young and old, rich and poor, sadhus wearing orange capes and tattered burlap sacks, some with shaved hair and otherwise with wild, matted dreadlocks, lepers pushing themselves around on carts with their bleeding fingerless stubs, itinerant vendors hawking little Chinese Buddha figures of white porcelain, with chains of glittering plastic diamonds glued onto their plump bodies. And behind it all, the Ganges still pure and turquoise, men and women alike wading in to wash themselves, their clothes and their sins.

There was only one problem: my camera, which had been acting up for a while, took this moment to stop recognizing my memory card entirely. After a fruitless fight, I gave up and left it at the hotel, setting off with only a wad of rupees in my pocket. Feeling naked yet exhilerated, like skinny-dipping in front of a Girl Scout camp, I plunged back into the fray, gobbled up some Veg Manchurian (an ascetic interpretation of an Indian version of the south Chinese version of a northeastern Chinese dish; lord only known what it originally was, but only the soy sauce and ginger seem likely to have survived) with naan and headed towards the holy temple of Mandi Devi Mandir, high up on a hill above town. A cable car proudly sporting its ISO 9001 certification ferries people there, promising them salvation in the afterlife, not to mention liability payments of up to Rs. 2 lakh (that’s around US$5000) in the unfortunate event of death. Pilgrims toting offering bags of coconuts, marigold flowers and Rice Krispies crowded into the temple in single file (enforced by steel fences), eventually compressing into a tight mass, jostling for forehead paint and positions at the altar, chanting in sync with the exhortations of the priests, the scents of incense and sweat, grains of puffed rice and flowers mashed against our bare feet, the bloated belly of some Hindu big mama pressed disturbingly against my ass. I emerged from the scrum dazed but alive, a better fate than that of four pilgrims in Bhubaneshwar that very day. Oblivious to it all, some slept on the floor, wrapped in filthy blankets, paying no heed to the clouds of flies buzzing around them.

At night, I watched the evening aarti from my balcony, Hari-ki-Pairi packed to bursting with devotees setting off dozens of diya floats of leaves, flowers and ghee candles down the river. At Chotiwala’s for dinner, the smiling waiter asked if eating their vegetarian food made me feel “special”; I think their version of paneer in curry was pretty far down my list of experiences on this day.

The next morning, I was awakened at dawn by the pilgrims chanting and singing on their way to their morning bath. The crowds were even denser than the last night, and after a breakfast of burned toast and chai, I took my seat on the balcony again, watching the show unfolding and dodging the occasional monkey.

As I still had plenty of time before my 6 PM train back, my plan had been to day-trip to Rishikesh, 26 km and some 45 minutes away. But I hadn’t figured on today being Kartik Purnima, the 15th day after Diwali, which was the reason for the crowds, and what awaited me at the bus station was utter chaos. Decrepit Ashok-Leylands packed to bursting were scattered about randomly, not a word of English anywhere and only utterly useless staff manning the ticket counters. After a few rounds, including stepping into cow shit and getting smacked in the face by a giant bluebottle fly, I found one guy who seemed to have a clue and a command of English; evidently I’d just missed one bus to Rishikesh and would have to wait for the next one. It was approaching noon and my time was slowly running out — I accepted defeat and headed to the taxi stand to charter a taxi for myself.

A “taxi” in India is, almost inevitably, an off-white Ambassador, identical in specification and prestige to the cars used by minor government functionaries. I was assigned a driver who spoke, and I quote, “mini mini” English, and after the token battle over how much I should pay in advance (we settled on 200 rupees) we set off to Rishikesh.

Or at least we tried to. After passing through the town center, we arrived at the bypass road, which the driver pointed to and said: “Jam.” How bad? “One hour, two hour, three hours…” One and a half hours of crawling along the road later, we had traveled 8 kilometers of the 26 km to Rishikesh. I did the math, stopped for a leisurely lunch at a nearby Country Inn (the fanciest hotel in Haridwar, where decent penne arrabiata cost a locally extortionate $3), and then turned around for a quick peek at Bharat Mata Mandir, the “India Mother Temple” with seven floors of statues of local worthies, ranging from Hindu deities to Sikh gurus and Mahatma Gandhi.

Then, with three hours to go before my train, we rejoined the traffic jam. The two-lane road was packed with five rows of vehicles, all stewing motionless for 5-10 minutes and then lurching forward by a few meters. Another one and a half hours passed, during which we nudged forward a total of two kilometers. I thanked my lucky stars for packing light and traveling in the winter, shouldered my backpack, and humped it on foot for the remaining 4 km into town. I got there in time to imbibe a cold Coke at Haridwar’s backpacker hub Big Ben, which features aircon, peace and quiet, pseudo-European decorations that went out of style thirty years ago and an only slightly overpriced menu.

Every square inch of the floor space in Haridwar station was occupied by dozing pilgrims. The displays showed “platform 1” for my train and, distrustful after my previous experience, I confirmed three times that yes, it was correct. The displays also showed that the train was on time, which of course it wasn’t; 15 minutes later, they said 10 minutes late, and 25 minutes later, they said 20 minutes late.

Half an hour late, the train actually came and I clambered on board. The only scenery now was the pitch black of the Indian countryside, the very occasional lighted shed floating past like the diyas of the Ganga aarti. 4.5 hours later, I arrived New Delhi station, semi-accidentally elbowed an overly insistent tout in the stomach, wheedled some spiced cashews out of the Hyatt bar staff and blasted my way to my new digs in Gurgaon, my mustachioed fortysomething driver Guldash blasting out his favorite cassette:

Whoah! We’re going to Ibiza Whoah! Back to the island Whoah! We’re gonna have a party Whoah! In the Mediterranean Sea Far away from this big town… –Vengaboys