The night train to Jaipur

Paul Th­er­oux takes to the tracks of In­dia more than three decades since his best­seller The Great Rail­way Bazaar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

KAPOOR­C­HAND, a dig­ni­fied man of about 60, was do­ing ex­actly what I was do­ing, and for the same rea­son. He lived in Jodh­pur; he needed to be in Jaipur. ‘‘ Train is best,’’ he said, slightly con­torted, sit­ting cross-legged on his bunk, and when he saw me fuss­ing with my bedding, he said, ‘‘ Don’t do that. Coolie will take care of it. They have re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. They must make your bed. They must wake you on time. They must bring you tea.’’

His tone marked him as a man of pic­turesque out­bursts. I waited for more. It seemed that we would be the only ones in the com­part­ment.

I put my things in or­der: wa­ter bot­tle, food I’d brought from the ho­tel, my note­book, that day’s Hin­dus­tan Times , my copy of The Great Mutiny , and an In­dian Rail­ways Con­cise Timetable.

The timetable im­pressed Kapoor­c­hand. He said, ‘‘ Plane might not take off. Or it might drop you in Delhi in­stead of Jaipur. Or you might have to wait hours.’’ He smiled out the win­dow at the plat­form of Jodh­pur Sta­tion. ‘‘ Train will leave on time. It will ar­rive on time. I will do my con­sult­ing and I will get evening train back to Jodh­pur.’’

He gave me his busi­ness card, which in­di­cated he was a char­tered ac­coun­tant with the firm of Jain and Jain. ‘‘ Are you busy?’’ ‘‘ Too busy. I have been all over In­dia, but al­ways train.’’ I said, ‘‘ Gauhati?’’ It was in dis­tant As­sam. ‘‘ I have been there.’’ ‘‘ Ma­nipur?’’ ‘‘ Yes.’’ ‘‘ Dar­jeel­ing?’’ The an­swer was yes to the 10 other re­mote places I men­tioned. As we were talk­ing about th­ese far-off sta­tions, a man in a sol­dier’s uni­form slipped into the com­part­ment, said hello, and be­gan chain­ing his suit­case to the stan­chion on the up­per bunk.

‘‘ Is that nec­es­sary?’’ I asked. As I spoke, the train whis­tle blew and we were on our way. ‘‘ It is pre­cau­tion, so to say,’’ Kapoor­c­hand said and con­sulted his watch, smil­ing be­cause the train had left on the minute. As the sol­dier climbed into the berth over my head — older pas­sen­gers, like me, got the lower berths — Kapoor­c­hand gave me a chain and pad­lock from his brief­case that he car­ried as spares. But I didn’t use them. I had very lit­tle in my bag, and I usu­ally tucked my brief­case un­der my pil­low, be­cause it con­tained my pass­port and credit cards and note­books and about $1500 in small bills.

‘‘ You know Jain re­li­gion?’’ Kapoor­c­hand asked. ‘‘ I am Jain. I med­i­tate three hours a day. But I will do more. I have two broth­ers who have re­nounced world. They wan­der. They use no shoes. They travel many kilo­me­tres to­gether.’’ ‘‘ Does this sort of life at­tract you?’’ ‘‘ Very much in­deed.’’ He was tall, friendly, sil­ver- haired, ob­vi­ously a busi­ness­man — Jains are noted for their busi­ness acu­men and also for their spir­i­tu­al­ity. He was well dressed for a rail­way passenger, in a starched long-sleeved white shirt and blue trousers; he wore an ex­pen­sive watch. He said he also wanted to re­nounce the world. ‘‘ I will do so in five or six years. I will wan­der. I will dis­cover my­self.’’ ‘‘ Where will you live?’’ ‘‘ I will live in my soul.’’ He gave me a Jain pam­phlet ti­tled Uni­ver­sal Fra­ter­nity, which I flipped through as he sat and ate from his small box of food. The pam­phlet was full of sage ad­vice: hu­man­is­tic, brother­hood of man, do the right thing. I read a bit, read the news­pa­per, and wrote my notes. The sol­dier was snor­ing; night had fallen, though it wasn’t late. Kapoor­c­hand seemed ea­ger to dis­cuss the life of the soul. Per­haps be­cause he had just fin­ished eat­ing, he talked about the spir­i­tual as­pects of food. ‘‘ Onions and gar­lic are worst,’’ he said. ‘‘ They make a de­sire for sex. And they cause anger­ness.’’ ‘‘ I did not know that.’’ ‘‘ My friend when he trav­els without wife never eats onions.’’ He was enu­mer­at­ing veg­eta­bles on his fin­gers. ‘‘ Car­rots. Root veg­eta­bles. I don’t eat, be­cause it is killing the liv­ing plant. I eat tops only.’’ ‘‘ Pota­toes?’’ ‘‘ Some peo­ple eat. But for me — no. So many live things can be found on a po­tato.’’

‘‘ Live things, such as . . .?’’

‘‘ Bac­te­ria and moulds. Why should they be killed be­cause of me?’’

For this rea­son, Jains ha­bit­u­ally wore masks, so as not to in­hale any gnats that might be hov­er­ing near their open mouths; and they swept at the sur­face of wa­ter to dis­perse — what? wa­ter bugs? mos­quito lar­vae? — be­fore they drank. It was a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Do Not Kill stric­ture: noth­ing must be killed, and that in­cluded flies and mould.

‘‘ Fruit is good, but . . . ba­nanas can be tricky. de­pends on time of day.’’

Up went his ad­mon­i­tory fin­ger. ‘‘ Ba­nana is gold in morn­ing. Sil­ver in af­ter­noon. Iron in evening. One should not eat ba­nanas in evening. Also, no yo­ghurt in evening, but yo­ghurt in morn­ing is ben­e­fi­cial.’’

I could see that he en­joyed putting me in the know, be­cause there is a freight of de­tail in In­dian life — an ever-present cargo of dogma, of stric­tures, of lessons, of dis­tinc­tions — that turns In­di­ans into mono­loguers. Their mo­tive seemed pedan­tic, not to con­vert you but to ex­ag­ger­ate how lit­tle you knew of life.

I ate some of the food I’d brought and of­fered a bit to him. He looked con­fused, but took it. He said, ‘‘ I am so ashamed. I didn’t of­fer you any­thing be­cause you were writ­ing. But now you of­fered. This is my fault. You set a bet­ter ex­am­ple.’’

It

JAIPUR Junc­tion sta­tion in the mid­dle of the night was crowded with peo­ple, though in In­dia it was hard to tell the trav­ellers from the squat­ters. Even in the dark hours of the morn­ing there were chat­ter­ers and tea-drinkers un­der the glar­ing lights, fam­ily groups hud­dled over pots of food, some peo­ple sleep­ing in heaps, stretched out like mum­mies, or like corpses in body bags. Oth­ers were hag­gling over tick­ets, and dawn was far off.

‘‘ Get a coolie,’’ were Kapoor­c­hand’s part­ing words. I left him to his ar­du­ous pur­suit of virtue. I didn’t need a coolie. I needed a taxi. A group of touts and driv­ers, tug­ging my sleeves, fol­lowed me out­side, and I chose the old­est of them, on the as­sump­tion that he would be the most re­li­able, and we set­tled on the fare be­fore I got into his old car.

He drove me into the dark­ness, but kept his word. And even at that hour I found a wel­come at the ho­tel, and a glass of juice, and a cosy room; I slept soundly.

I had stayed in this ho­tel be­fore, the Ram­bagh Palace, but it had been barer then, a big echoey place of mar­ble halls. In the morn­ing I saw it was now lux­u­ri­ous. ‘‘ I did not see the in­side of a train sta­tion, I did not take a train or board a bus, un­til I was in my late teens,’’ an In­dian woman told me at the Ram­bagh Palace. She was in her early 40s, a well-brought-up woman from a good fam­ily who had al­ways gone to school in a chauf­feur-driven car. ‘‘ I never saw a poor per­son. I never saw a slum. I never

took pub­lic trans­port. I didn’t know how to buy a ticket. Home to school, school to home. That was the rou­tine. But one day I re­belled. I was about 17 or 18. I told the driver, ‘ I’m walk­ing home.’ He fol­lowed me in the car. He was afraid for me, and afraid of what my fa­ther would say. But walk­ing home, and then tak­ing trains later, I fi­nally saw what In­dia was re­ally like. And I was so shocked. I had no idea such poor peo­ple ex­isted in In­dia.’’ ‘‘ IT was dusk, and the build­ings crammed into the Galta Gorge were dark­en­ing. A mon­key chat­tered and leaped to a branch in a banyan tree above Mr Gopal’s head, yank­ing the branch down and mak­ing a punkah’s whoosh. We en­tered the gate and crossed the court­yard to some ru­ined build­ings, with coloured fres­coes of trees and peo­ple on their fa­cades.

‘‘ Some had been raked with in­de­ci­pher­able graf­fiti and painted over; whole pan­els had been chis­elled away . . . On the or­nate tem­ple walls, stuck with posters, de­faced with chis­els, pissed on and scrawled over with huge De­vana­gri script ad­ver­tis­ing Jaipur busi­nesses, there was a blue enamel sign, warn­ing vis­i­tors in Hindi and English that it was ‘ for­bid­den to des­e­crate, de­face, mark or oth­er­wise abuse the walls’. The sign it­self had been de­faced: the enamel was chipped — it looked partly eaten.

‘‘ Far­ther along, the cob­ble­stone road be­came a nar­row path and then a steep stair­case cut into the rock walls of the gorge. At the top of this was a tem­ple fac­ing a still black pool . . .’’

Th­ese para­graphs, copied ver­ba­tim from The Great Rail­way Bazaar , doesn’t need quo­ta­tion marks around it be­cause not much at the mon­key tem­ple in Galta Gorge had changed in the 33 years since I’d last seen it. It was larger but just as ru­inous, looking an­cient: that was the In­dian way. In­stead of Mr Gopal, I had Mohan with me. Mohan wanted to show me a mirac­u­lous im­age some­how im­printed in the rock face on a cliffside tem­ple, high above. A new pool had been dug, and now there were two, one for men and boys, the newer one a ze­nana, strictly for women wear­ing saris, for mod­esty’s sake, but they were drenched and clingy, so the ef­fect was the op­po­site.

They splashed among naked girls of six or seven. Both tanks brimmed with foul-looking wa­ter in which the pil­grims thrashed, dous­ing them­selves and drink­ing — more like a hot evening at a pub­lic swim­ming pool than a day at a holy shrine, all the boys laugh­ing and splash­ing, jump­ing, div­ing, some of them swim­ming and gar­gling un­der a spout of wa­ter is­su­ing from the mouth of a carved mar­ble cow.

I as­cended the stairs, fol­low­ing Mohan. ‘‘ Mon­keys,’’ I said. ‘‘ I hate mon­keys.’’

‘‘ Sa­cred mon­keys,’’ Mohan said, as though this made a dif­fer­ence when they bared their teeth at me. Decades ago I had taken them to be ba­boons, but th­ese were rhe­sus mon­keys, big and small, with mangy fur and wicked eyes. Once, see­ing mon­keys like this, Paul Bowles had writ­ten that ‘‘ their pos­te­ri­ors looked like sun­set on a gro­cer’s cal­en­dar’’.

The mon­key god tem­ple was a cave-like shel­ter at the top of the gorge. I climbed up, as I had all those years ago, and see­ing a priest squat­ting nearby, I left my note­book and pen out­side — it seemed sac­ri­le­gious to bring writ­ing im­ple­ments into the in­ner sanc­tum. But no sooner had I gone in­side than I heard, ‘‘ Sahib! Sahib!’’ The big­gest mon­key had stolen my small note­book and pen.

I shouted and the crea­ture dropped the note­book, but he skit­tered about 10 feet away and be­gan gnaw­ing the rub­ber plunger off the top of my pen. I threw some peanuts at him. He flung the pen aside and went for them.

‘‘ Good karma,’’ Mohan said of my feed­ing the mon­key. And he showed me a stain on the tem­ple wall. ‘‘ Im­age of Hanu­man is mir­a­cle. You see it is nat­u­ral in rock.’’

The lumpy rock wall, iden­ti­fied as a mon­key’s head and shoul­ders, had been out­lined in or­ange. ‘‘ Six hun­dred years old,’’ Mohan said. ‘‘ Not less.’’

From this height I could see that Galta was much big­ger than it had been be­fore; what had seemed to me a dusty shrine in a ravine was now a large com­plex of tem­ples. Far above it on the ridge was a sun tem­ple, for the Surya devo­tees. The spit­ting and splash­ing — ex­plic­itly for­bid­den be­fore on a com­i­cal sign — was now tol­er­ated, as was the screech­ing and swim­ming in the tanks, and the sight of women with wet cling­ing saris, and small naked girls laugh­ing at the edge of the pool and poised like wa­ter sprites.

As I passed them again, the women were float­ing small water­borne dishes, each one bear­ing a can­dle flame — in Hindu be­lief, a deepak, or holy flame — as a white and brown heron stalked along a low shelf, from time to time dip­ping its beak in the wa­ter.

‘‘ Hanu­man is my god,’’ Mohan said. ‘‘ I do puja ev­ery day at my tem­ple be­fore I go on duty. Also my wife. Also my daugh­ter.’’

In­di­ans boasted of how much had changed in their coun­try. It was mod­ern, it was wealth­ier, even rick­shaw wal­lahs have mo­bile phones.

But in Galta Gorge I re­alised that noth­ing had changed. The place was big­ger but just as dirty; more peo­ple, more mon­keys, the same pieties.

And then, af­ter lunch one day in Jaipur, I de­cided to leave. Thanks to the train, it was easy to do. I went to the sta­tion, where the train was wait­ing. I got on. The train left. I sim­ply evap­o­rated. This is an edited ex­tract from GhostTrain­tothe EasternS­tar , copy­right Paul Th­er­oux 2008, to be pub­lished by Hamish Hamil­ton on Septem­ber 4 ($35). Shop­ping in Mum­bai — Page 6

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