The night train to Jaipur
Paul Theroux takes to the tracks of India more than three decades since his bestseller The Great Railway Bazaar
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.’’
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