The two of them step out of Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus. And step over a dead man.
He must have been lying there for a while. Gluey fluid is leaking from the body into pools on the hot, roughly paved floor.
Hundreds of commuters, flying from the gothic palace-like railway station behind them out into the city, hurdle the dead man without thought. Flies crowd his eyes and mouth.
Well, they wanted to travel…
So welcome, now, to India.
Kemp and his Greek Passpartout make their way, slightly slow, slightly stunned, down Dr Naoroji Road – enveloped in the vast crowds. Islamic and gothic architecture, men bustling from old fashioned offices, in old fashioned shirts, clutching manila files and flapping paper, people repairing spectacles on the street, tea stalls under arches, carved winged beasts in front of high Victorian buildings looking out, on guard, with mysterial bearded faces.
Then onto Mahatma Ghandi Street – snake charmers, drug pushers, men with monkeys and women with babies and outstretched hands. A sheet of incredible heat and humidity thrown around them, clingingly.
They had come from Cairo with an idea of travelling onwards, travelling round the world if they could. But all the world seems to have come to them, here, right now, on these streets.
Cricket is played down the alleyways off the main road, with planks of wood taller than the kid batting.
And perhaps a hundred games are being played on the Oval Maidan – a vast dusty field behind the universities and towering government ministry buildings, where men in full white kits, and other men in tatty brown work shoes and office trousers, play in the mess of games going on here on this palm-ringed park.
Fielders, running for catches, weave in and out of the crowds merging on the different pitches, like the tuk-tuks whirring through the traffic out on the streets.
Kemp and Passepartout look for a hotel.
They find something on the bending sea road that leads to the Apollo Bunder, the old pier of Bombay, and the Gate of India.
Outside on the boardwalk by the sea, as the light falls on the day, men are sleeping. No things. Just men, laid down, lying straight, sleeping, one after the other, along the curve of the promenade, like marks on a clock face.
The two of them go and stand under the grand Gate of India and watch the birds fall and recover and fall again in the dying sky.
They may not have entered India by this great arch built for Kings of England to sail up to and breeze onto their sub-continent, but they turn and look inwards from here, past the fussy little balconies and turrets of the imposing Taj Mahal palace hotel, and think of the country waiting for them, flowing away as they look for thousands of miles.
It was just a few weeks ago they had decided to explore the world together, and now Kemp and Passepartout are here. It seems almost unbelievable.
Their hotel doesn’t have a single window in the whole building.
The heat is unbearable.
The corridor is a mess of exposed wiring and falling plaster.
As Kemp tosses on thin thin mattress bed he becomes aware of a commotion outside the door. Words and shouting he can’t understand. And then a word he can.
More voices. Some Western voices. “There’s a fire! Get out! Get out!”
Kemp and Passepartout rush from their room, out into the narrow hall with other bodies and faces, pushing, shoving, and down the rackety stairs as smoke builds in the ramshackle hotel.
As he throws himself down the stairs Kemp looks in one open room and sees the man who had greeted them, taken their money on arrival and shown them the cell-like room. He is sat on a bed in one of the bedrooms. He is a picture of utter calm, drinking a tea.
There is panic down out on the street outside the hotel but not for the staff. New rooms are conjured up by them easily – as if near-death had been quite expected.
A wide-eyed, heat-wrenched, sweat-drenched night is spent just waiting for the morning to come. Their very first in Asia.
They feel hopelessly abroad.
The new day finds the two of them back, lost, in sun-streaked Mumbai streets, the hot odour coming up off the pavements.
Mothers washing in the water from the standpipes and limbless men begging next to tea shops and bright red pillar boxes. It is a totally disorienting scene.
Stood in the crowds, standing high above three Indian kids pulling at his trousers, is a very pale man. He is wearing a large brimmed, flopping green hat tied around his chin. He seems more lost even than Kemp and Passepartout.
“Are you British?” he calls to them.
Kemp looks over at the man.
“I said, are you British?”
“Yes,” says Kemp. “Well, I am anyway. She’s…”
“Oh good,” the man says. “I haven’t met anyone British. Only a group of Germans. Are you staying here?”
The man is joined by a smaller, older, sweet-looking but even more confused man, negotiating the road with stuttering steps and his hands pushed out in front of him at the traffic, like a man trying to keeping back devouring dog’s jaws.
“They’re one of us, Dad.”
“Oh that’s good…” says the old man.
“You’re English then are you?” says Kemp, moving towards them, past a cow sat in the road.
“Oh no,” chuckles the old man. “No, no, no” his kind face creasing with mirth, he bends slightly, his hands on his thighs. “English…” he says to himself as if he can’t really believe he heard it right. “No, no… We’re Welsh.”
“Oh. Right,” says Kemp, shooting a look at Passepartout, a doubtful bend of his eyebrows. “So, are you on holiday here then?” he says, turning to the younger man.
“Have you asked them?” the old man interrupts, speaking to his son, his gentle green eyes looking Kemp and Passepartout over. “Why not? You need someone.”
Kemp looks between the two men. A little confused.
“Yes, well, er…” says the younger one. “We were wondering… funny question…but how would you like to come to a wedding?”
Kemp stops short at this. “Yours?”
“You’re getting married?”
“What? In Mumbai”
“No, not in Mumbai” says the man. “Somewhere near Jaipur. I’m Gareth by the way…” he reaches his hand out. “And this is my dad, David”
Kemp shakes their hands. Doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. Passepartout leans round Kemp with her hand outstretched.
“You see I’m getting married in two days,” says Gareth. “And I don’t know anyone. It’s just me and Dad here.”
“Are you marrying a Welsh girl?” asks Passepartout.
“No,” says Gareth, as if puzzled by the question, bending his head round Kemp to answer Passepartout. “An Indian girl”.
He seems very happy as he says this. He looks at his father and they both smile at each other.
“I met her in Wales a few months ago. She was studying. And we… well you know how it is…love and all that…” He exchanges smiles with his father again. “And now we’re getting married.”
“She has a very big family,” he adds.
“And we don’t,” says the old man. “And no one has come out from Wales. They didn’t want to come. We couldn’t get any of them to leave. Lazy bastards. It’s just me and Gareth.”
“So would you like to come?” asks Gareth.
Kemp and Passepartout look at each other.
“When is it?” says Kemp, turning back “And where? How would we get there?”
“It’s in two days,” says Gareth, springing into some sort of action taking out paper and pen from his rucksack to write them directions and guides to where they should go.
“It would be great to have someone from home to be there,” he says as he looks down, writing.
“Well, someone nearly from home anyway,” says the old man to himself.
As Gareth writes his notes, and the father puts his hand on Kemp and Passepartout’s back, smiling at them, pushing them all close together, they feel they’re being peddled, ushered into accepting this ludicrous proposition.
Kemp looks at the street children still circling round them on the roadside.
He had expected that maybe they would be gypped and hoodwinked by the street kids. The mysteries and slights of India easily flummoxing them. Tricking like the snake charmer’s backwards look. But not a father and son from Wales.
“Well, we want a reason to travel in India,” says Kemp. “We have no real plan or route or anything like that… Jaipur you say…?” he says looking at the scribbled notes on the page, looking up at Passepartout, nodding with questioning eyes at her that she doesn’t seem to reject or decline.
“So, er, why not..?” he continues to look at Passepartout, whose face doesn’t show she thinks this crazy idea is a crazy idea. And so it is, with that, they are shaking hands and agreeing to meet at the wedding outside of Jaipur in two days time.
“She has a very big family,” says the old man again. “Very big.”
That evening, Kemp and Passepartout are sitting on Chowpatty beach eating blazing hot bhel puris and pav bahajis off paper, suffering and blowing out their cheeks, watching the young Mumbai girls and boys flirt with each other on the sand shore. The tower blocks of Indian finance and commerce twinkling with reds and blues in the black background.
They know they have agreed to something very strange indeed. But they don’t know quite what.
“It’ll probably be very boring in the end. A dull ceremony in a dull hotel. But, well, it’s good to be moving isn’t it? A reason for moving, somewhere to aim for…”
Mumbai and boat trips out to Elephant Island and the best architecture the British Empire could foist on a country are left behind. A fresh day unpeels itself for the two of them in the pink city of Jaipur. It has taken 18 hours to get here. 700 miles north.
Queen Victoria visited once. As Indians believed pink to be the colour of hospitality, the whole city was decorated pink. Citizens now must still keep the city pink, their houses and buildings, under point of law.
A goat stands on a crumbling piece of pink wall above Kemp’s head. The frescos on the side of the wall seem to be rubbed, even chewed, away.
They need to find someone who will take them to their rendezvous outside of the city, but they are distracted. The buildings, the palaces with their extravagant buttresses within the old walled centre steel their attention. Although they don’t have time, they climb the Sargasuli tower, take in all of Jaipur from 60 feet above.
The two of them then lounge in the heat in a surreal ground of weird astrologic constructions. The crowds, the traffic, gone. Vast silent walls here curve to the sky. Huge buildings, built 300 years ago, are angled to point out the planets. Giant stairs lead up to the heavens. A funfair of uranology, spirals, slants, points. Mad, colossal sun dials still accurate to within seconds.
It tells them they are late.
Walking in the tight, dirt-smelling old streets, Kemp approaches a small open-fronted room, sat just behind a flowing canal of raw sewage running down the side of the road, where a man sits under collapsing mountains of clothes, hammering frantically on a sewing machine.
His wife has pushed herself a place, a dent, into the wall of piled clothing at the back and is ironing. Their business premises cannot be more than 20 square feet. Could it be their home too?
The man looks up as Kemp approaches with his held paper of directions. Before either can speak though, a pig emerges from the vast embankment of clothing behind him, and squirms through Kemp’s legs.
The tuk-tuk has taken 2 hours to get there.
“It’ll probably just be a dull hotel…” repeats Kemp.
He turns to look at Passepartout. Noticing something in her face, he turns back again to see what she’s staring at as the bone-crunching motorcart draws up.
“This…This can’t be the right place…” Kemp says, the words falling from his mouth.
Two giant white wooden gates in front of them, fixed in the high stone walls, slowly open.
Women in bright saris and dupattas come forward with trays of flowers, throwing petals onto the two of them as they walk through the archway. Kemp has a garland placed round his neck, paint smeared on his forehead. A cannon blasts from the lawn to announce a new arrival.
The grass grounds bow and sweep down towards a turreted palace.
As they walk down the route, a riotous scene lays itself out.
Men playing pipes for dancing cobras to emerge up from wicker baskets line the path. Servants smile, clasp their hands together and rock their heads as they pass. Men in white robes hold the reins of bawling camels. Hundreds of intricate patterns have been created with thousands of flower petals on the ground. A game of polo on thunderng horses takes place on the fields beyond. Smoke and music and dancing girls. Coloured tents and silk pavilions.
Kemp and Passepartout walk through the crowd of beautifully dressed Sikhs. Turbans and cholis, embroidered and decorated. Harrassed waiters rush around, serving haughty-looking Indian men in long white coats with medals on the breast.
Stood in the middle, looking impossibly small amongst the other men with their flowing sculptured beards, swords sheathed in their belts, is David. They wave at him from a distance. He looks utterly befuddled by everything.
A blast of horns and drums and cheering, and from the portcullis gates comes an enormous elephant, with a wooden platform erected on its back, carrying a disconcerted-looking Gareth. Gareth is wearing a diamond encrusted tunic and a gigantic turban the size of a large pumpkin.
Kemp and Passepartout are swept in the procession behind the vast swaying elephant towards a temple. In the temple Gareth is taken down from the beast, wet turmeric is smeared over this face. He is taken to the front, looking a little desperately for his father, but there is no time. His bride is here.
Wrapped in fantastic silks and sashes, her head covered, she looks beautiful, tense, poised.
David beams, sat amongst the front row of imposing Sikh warriors.
The couple engage in practices that must make sense to all but Kemp, Passepartout, the groom and his father. The wedding couple walk several times round the hall, sit cross legged on the floor, are chanted at by the grand Guru, Indian hymns are sung.
The service ends with great cheering and Gareth – and David – are hoisted on shoulders and taken outside and the rest of the day is then spent in the sun in the grounds of the immense palace looking out at the gnawed Rajasthan mountain ranges, as fantastically rich, sharply spiced, foods and whiskies are brought again and again by the scampering waiters.
The Sikhs, the endlessly large family, come to talk, invite Kemp and Passepartout to their houses, asking them to occasions to which that they could never keep. But which they agree to, of course. Agree to everything.
The camels are still there to be ridden if wanted, the acrobats whirling and spinning on their heads in all parts of the ground whether watched or not. The music, the tablas, the dancing.
Gareth and David are moved round and round the party, a little shaken-looking, but beaming with perplexed pleasure. Kemp and Passepartout can’t snatch a word.
It is a heady, mad, opulent, atmosphere. Kemp sprawled on an extravagantly decorated divan raises a glass and thinks what an extraordinary situation this all is. How did this happen?
Suddenly there is a confusion. A smash of glass and there are cries, shouts, the music stops. The crowd shifts and parts.
In the centre of the courtyard a towering turbaned man is revealed with his ceremonial sword in his hand. The lights of the palace reflect and dance off it.
He has the sword pressed to another bearded man’s stomach. The crowd jostle back and forth, craning to see what will happen.
Eventually the man is talked down from his furious positions. The crowd, perhaps a little disappointed go back to the revelry.
As Kemp and Passepartout later make their way to one o the bungalows that has been given to them for the night in the palace grounds, they see the same two warring men now laughing and drinking together.
It has been the strangest day.
The family wouldn’t allow them to go back to Jaipur to carry on their Indian travel. Even though Kemp wanted to get back to the station to continue their journey by train, they wouldn’t think of it. A car and driver are summoned up. A black limo with a short unsmiling Indian with an Elvis quiff.
“The call me The Bollyguard” he tells them as he drives them along. “I look after you.”
He turns in his seat to look at them. “And I can get you anything you want,” he says, fixing his eyes on Kemp. “Anything…”
They drive through the Rajasthan countryside. It feels utterly surreal to them to be here, sat in this black stretch car and watch outside through tall green grasses, at men leading two gaunt oxen, ribs sticking out of their thin carcases, in tight circles pulling wooden ploughs. Two children, one wearing a torn shirt and no bottoms, the other in torn trousers and no shirt, pull a filthy can from a well. Parrots, crows, shrike, kite, humming birds perch on the trees and telegraph wires.
“Where am I taking you?” asks the driver.
“We’re going round the world!” says Kemp.
“I’ll take you to Udaipur,” says the driver.
Breakfast on the roof over the lake in Udaipur.
Then they walk the crooked streets and through the courtyards and terraces of the massive palace above the city. The shops in the streets below spill with craftwork and art and instruments. They enter one shop selling sitars.
Kemp tries playing one of the long necked, smooth carved contraptions, getting no tune out of it whatsoever. It is taken from his hand by the owner, who flashily plays for them sat cross-legged on his shop floor, eyes closed, his head thrown backwards.
Kemp picks up a battered, dog-eared copy of ‘Shout!’ the Beatles biography sat on one of the shelves.
“Put that down please,” says the shop owner, who stops playing quickly.
“I was just looking at…”
“Put it down please.” His voice has tightened.
“I’ve always wanted to read that. Is it not for sale?”
“You cannot buy it.”
“Oh, no? Why’s that?”
“It is not important.”
Even though he only had a vague interest in the book, the shop owner’s manner has both annoyed and intrigued Kemp.
“Why can’t I buy it?” Kemp insists. “Tell me how much I could give you for it?” he starts getting rupee notes from his pocket.
“You cannot have it…”
The shop owner snaps. He gets up off the floor and marches to Kemp, rips the book out of his hands.
“You cannot have it…. One of these men,” he says slowly, looking at the cover, then at Kemp. “One of these men, they gave it to me.”
“One of the Beatles came here and gave you the book?”
“Was it George?”
“I don’t want to talk about this please. I am shutting now. Yes please, I am shutting. You go now, yes please, you go.” And the two of them are waved out of the shop.
Back onto the fly blown streets.
They walk the beauty of Udaipur. Past a contorted swami, sat legs in knots on the steps of the Jagdish temple.
“Where do we go now?” says Kemp to Passepartout. “Do you remember we were meant to be teaching?” he laughs thinly. “Teaching round the world? That idea kind of got lost didn’t it… But, well, we’re here now. And so, you know… where do we go from here?”
“You’re going to think this is crazy…” says Passepartout after a pause. “But I think I keep seeing that man.”
“That… Bolly man, or whatever he called himself.”
“What do you mean you keep seeing him?” says Kemp, his head turning to take in the Udaipur scene: the cows entering – unbothered and undisturbed – the samosa huts; the girl leading her train of donkeys in a line; women drifting along the unswept street with large metal pots on their heads; a peacock striding with purple fans through a clutch of unhappy, dirty looking hens.
“Everywhere. While we’ve been walking around, down alleyways, I’m sure I keep seeing his face.”
As they cross the arched bridge – the grand white palace floating in the centre of the lake, admiring its own marbled reflections in the water – Kemp sees him.
Loitering in the crowds, his elbows up on the balustrades, insouciant, the Elvis quiff and the disdainful face, watching as they pass.
They eat on the rooftops again, at night, the city glimmering around and below them as they eat thali and drink lassis. The driver walks past their table, slowly, looking down on them, keeping watch until he disappears round the corner into the night.
Next morning as they leave their hotel, slouched against the wall he’s there again.
Kemp remembers reading Bagheera, the cunning sleek black panther of Kipling’s Jungle Book was born here in Udaipur.
“What do you want Mr Bollygaurd?” he asks.
“You want me to drive you somewhere?”
“Oh,” says Kemp. Relieved at last that this is all he wants.
He looks at Passepartout. Passepartout looks back.
“Yes. Yes I think we do.”
Jodhpur is the blue city. They are left on a broken road in its centre.
Not as graceful as Udaipur, it feels more threatening, a little more menacing. Instantly Kemp and Passepartout are jostled by the crowds. A girl passes them, begging, dragging herself along the road on wooden block on her hands and feet. Wandering goats picks at what they can.
The heat has invaded everywhere: the buildings, the roads, the trees, the people.
The sun sits deep in dust haze above them.
Above the city is the mammoth, brooding, cannons and honeycombed windowed Mehrangarh Fort.
Music plays high in the minarets somewhere. It calls them up. Opening doors, climbing stone stairs, crossing deserted halls, Kemp and Passepartout go searching. And there they are, two musicians playing the tanpurer and santoor. Singing slow Rajasthan folk ragas. They sing high and the two performers are lost in their music spiraling up and up and up.
They stop. And look forward. Coming out of their reverie. It seems they have only just noticed Kemp and Passepartout sat there watching them. There is a long pause. Kemp feels he needs to say something.
“I like your shirt,” he says, eyeing the faded pink Jodhpuri collarless shirt the santoor player is wearing.
“Then you must have it!” the man says, springing to his feet, starting to unbutton his shirt
“Oh. No. I didn’t mean…” says Kemp
“Yes. You have my shirt. I have yours…” the man gestures to Kemp’s embarrassingly white shirt.
As night falls, Kemp and Passepartout are again lured by music. Drums, chanting.
They fall off the road into a tight, small alley, lit by candles. There is a crazed crowd, bouncing up and down, droning, chanting. Heads rollings, eyes in the back of their heads.
The crowd face one way, towards a shrine dedicated to Vishnu – where the God stands, pale blue and four armed. Then the crowd, as one, leaping up and down to the sound of the pounding drums, switches and faces the other way, towards a shrine for the elephant-headed Ganesha.
Everyone is out of it. Stupefied on devotement. And ganga. Or bhang lassi. The burning incense is intense, coloured powder covers the faces and sits on the air. Wild stares. Hysteria.
Kemp and Passepartout are dragged further and further in, they start to be crushed. Still the chanting goes on, the rhythmic bouncing. First one way, then the other. It is unrelenting. Suffocating. Frightening. They battle their way out.
“Jesus, what was that?” says Kemp.
Passepartout leans herself on the wall. As if she’s been holed under the plimsoll line. She just rests there, shakes her head.
“I’m glad we’re doing this travelling together,” Kemp offers, breathing heavily. “I hope you’re ok.
You know, I could never have done all this alone.”
He looks at the girl who has taken him from his safe, dull, London life. He smiles. “Thanks.”
Drinking Masala chai in the new day – the spiced tea, that is boiled with milk and that is, they both dwell privately, fairly disgusting. They are late again.
There is a train leaving Jodhpur, north, that will travel during the night to Delhi. But they have been squandering the day sat under the Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower of Rajasthan, eating omelettes served up on the street. The train is going to leave and they are miles away.
The tea stall owner’s son helps them out, offering up his broken down moped.
Kemp and Passepartout get on the back of the collapsed machine and are sped through the ginnels and market passageways of Jodhpur. A flashing blur from waist height of street sellers and urns of coloured spices, cauldrons of cooking lentils, sacks of nuts and seeds, squawking parakeets attack the bars of cages as they pass.
Under the gaudy advertising poster for Pepsi and the racks of fake Disney t-shirts a basket of silks fall, and spreads out on the floor like spilt honey.
Jodhpur station is alive too.
Alive with activity. Women carrying trunks up on their heads; naked children waddle and roam along the platform; men are washing under the taps or sleeping on sacks; ancient handcarts filled, towering, with all the chattels of life imaginable.
There are First, Second and Third class waiting rooms. And even First, Second and Third class toilets.
Kemp and Passepartout sit on the platform and wait for their train. It is delayed.
“I guess we’re going to be here a while,” Kemp says. “I’m going for a walk around.”
“Mmm mmm,” says Passepartout. Not looking up from her book.
Kemp walks to the end of the line. Looks at the late afternoon, sun-smeared scene.
He watches trains pull in and watches them empty and then fill again, like an old lung. Before the trains then pull off, doors open, men hanging from openings in a mass of legs and bodies. The purposeful dawdlers slapping down the platform in loose sandals to jump on the back of the departing, lumbering, blue carriages, and heave themselves up onto the roofs.
As Kemp returns to Passepartout he sees a ring of men have gathered round her. They are circling. Not saying anything, but watching her. Smiling. Leering.
Kemp walks up to this stalking, baiting group. Stands next to Passepartout. But the young men don’t back away. They stand, eyeballing the two of them. Grinning diabolically. One man licks his lips slowly and purposefully at Passepartout. It is alarming, this rotating scene of staring men, Frightening.
Kemp spots two India police guards stood on an iron bridge crossing over the platforms. Two men in green uniforms, green berets, chatting and lounging. He approaches and tells them of the men below, circling their prey. Circling his Passepartout.
One of the officers – tall, barrel chested, a prodigious moustache hanging like a hefty adult sloth under his substantial nose – makes his way slowly down onto the platform. His thick, dark, wooden stick swinging by his side. He clumps it into his hand heavily as he nears the gang.
They spot him, and like cats at a fallen dustbin lid, scatter to all sides of the station. Kemp watches one running straight down the platform, down onto the line, and further and further into the ball of sun slowly dying on the horizon.
The sleeper train arrives, heavily pulling up to the platform, creaking and travelling so impossible slowly under its weight.
They find their sparse, grim, double sleeping compartment and watch the loading for what feels like hours on this, hopefully, Delhi-bound train: exact, official, verdicts on where the train is going vary wildly.
Finally the train shudders and bangs and starts slowly, through the final gloaming light of Jodhpur’s evening.
As they pass out of the station, out into the open land, a farewell committee of three men and one pig are in a perfect line, in perfect time, shitting by the side of the rail.
The long sleeper train groans into the falling night. Going not much faster than running pace. Stopping every 20 minutes or so.
At nearly every stop there is a glare of activity. The two guards in our carriage seem to be given a new dish of curry at each station. They seem remarkably happy, sat on the floor by the open doors, piling up metal plates, stomachs pushing through their dishevelled uniforms.
There is nothing for Kemp and Passepartout to eat on the train. Kemp asks the two guards if they could get them some curry on the next stop. They look up through their mouthfuls of food, not stopping chewing, and shake their heads.
Kemp walks through the train. The other compartments aren’t as quiet as theirs. The seating part of the train, not the sleeping compartments, is where everyone is sleeping of course.
Everyone on top of each other. Fat men spread out on newspapers. Children on top of children on top of their mothers. The Second Class compartments have alcove bunks, with people tumbling out. Hundreds of pairs of naked feet, pointing up, pointing down, poking out of curtains.
Kemp battles through. Irritable faces jut out of the bunk and glower into his before snapping back in again. Kemp returns to Passepartout in their grey cabin, which suddenly seems like a palace.
They arrive at Delhi station in the morning, in the dark, before the sun has risen. Outside the station is a riot of action. Tuk-tuks hawking for business; rugs thrown out, men try to sell the new arrivers plastic lighters, toys; other men offering more sinister produce. A chatter, like a jungle dawn, riding over the scene. Chirruping voices, musical cries.
Later they experience Delhi at day. It is impossible. Impossibly full. The whole of India must be on these streets.
They push through the crushes and steaming clouds of people. Dogs with weeping sores lie in the dust. Kemp frequently losing Passepartout. At one point he hears cries behind him. Fearful for her safety, panicking, he pushes back through the crowds, shouting her name, lifting himself up on his toes, anxious to find her.
He discovers her thwacking at a balled-up, cowering figure of man on the pavement.
He was the third, or forth, man in the last hour to have grabbed at her breast. Patience had snapped.
Kemp rescues the petrified-looking man.
The two of them enter the Jama Masjid mosque. Hoping for peace here, in India’s largest mosque.
They stand on the balcony of the tremendous, triple domed, high arched-gated, red sandstone sanctuary. Looking over the city burning up in the sunset. Birds scattered high above the giant minarets.
It is magnificent.
“We are closing now.”
Kemp falls out of his trance and looks down at a thin moustached man with prominent teeth looking up at him.
“We are closing,” says the man. “Go now. Go now,” he starts to flap and push at Kemp and Passepartout.
“But we’ve only just got here,” protests Kemp.
“Yes, but you go now.”
“But why? We’ve just got here…”
“It is prayer time. Only Muslims. You go now.”
Kemp feels utterly aggrieved at this. He doesn’t want to go.
“But I’m a Muslim,” he says.
The man stops pushing him.
“What did you say?”
“I said I’m a Muslim,” Kemp repeats, slowly, wondering what on earth he’s doing. He looks over at Passepartout who has turned her face away and is rubbing her eyebrow with her thumb in an embarrassed fashion.
“Oh,” says the man. He thinks for a moment. “You here to pray?”
“Yes,” says Kemp.
Passepartout lets out a low groan.
“Oh….” says the man, and starts to walk away, a little unsure.
Passepartout strides up close to Kemp “Why did you say that?” she hisses
“I don’t really know,” says Kemp.
The great white and black squared marble floor starts to fill up with men coming to pray. Wearing long white kaftans, white skull caps, they pour into the immense walled grounds, more and more of them, responding to the call to pray, the wails from the Muezzin, that hang up on the peach sky.
Kemp is stranded, in a flood of men – and a few women – pouring into the mosque. He stands conspicuous as the hundreds of worshipers bow and then kneel and rise in prayer.
He looks despairingly for a way out. The large cupsed gates are shut.
Noses to the ground, bottom in the air, Kemp gingerly steps through these devoted worshippers. Apologising as he trips and stands on bare feet. Dropping his shoes. Thinking what a fool he is. Eventually someone lets them out of a door and they are back into Delhi – sinking without a trace back into the crowded streets.
They need to get away from the city.
Mr Ramesh at their hotel tells them they must start early to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.
“You must go at dawn. Earlier if possible. But you are not like me. I think you need much sleep, eh? I am right?” He looks closely at them. “Yes,” he nods to himself “I know I am right…”
Mr Ramesh is sure about this early start, as he seems sure about most things.
The diminutive Mr Ramesh closes his eyes and tilts his head back with utter meditative assurance.
“And you must stay in Agra till the very last train. And even then you will still not have seen enough…”
Kemp is uncertain about Mr Ramesh’s advice. Mr Ramesh had earlier been unable to direct them to a restaurant only a few meters down the road from his hotel, giving them long and detailed directions to places that didn’t exist.
“Yes, yes, of course I know the place. I have eaten there many times. The owner is a very good friend of mine now I come to think of it…” he told them when they returned, complaining of his bad directions. “You must have made a mistake in your hearing, I am thinking…”
His potted history of the Delhi’s Red Fort before they set off one morning had absolutely no relation to what was in Kemp’s guide book. But for some reason they listened to him once again with his unsolicited Agra information, and so found themselves at Delhi train station a little after 5am.
They buy their ticket and book a reservation for the very last train back.
The train to Agra is new. And long. Countless carriages stretch away down the platform.
When it sets off on its travel through the Uttar Pradesh countryside of bamboo and green grasses in the morning’s soft light, birds sat on the back of bullocks, Kemp looks out of the window and looks down the track, in the mist. The train bends in a long silver curve round the green basin, into a tunnel more than half a kilometre in front of him. And there’s still more train behind.
Arriving at Agra station they stop a man on a rickshaw bicycle and ask him how much to take them to the Taj Mahal. They give him 100 rupees.
Rajha strains them up to the palace. He is stringy young man in old grey trousers and rope sandals.
The Taj Mahal is monumental. Glowing in smooth white, brilliant marble on a deep, endless blue backdrop.
Up close, the air and space around the walls and dome and the calligraphy up the giant smooth sides is incredible. A building with a soul. It blocks out, screens, the sight and thought of the hundreds of other visitors here. It feels like to Kemp and Passepartout as if it is just them. Them and the Taj.
Rajha has been waiting outside.
It might have been hours that they’d been in there, gazing, lost, preoccupied, at the wide Yamuna River flowing at a thick, brown, heavy, summer’s pace just behind the vast white iceberg palace.
“I take you somewhere?” he asks
“No, it’s ok Rajha. We’re ok. We don’t need anything. Thank you. Thank you.”
They go for a walk and seeing men, sun drunk, in the grounds behind the Hospital for Leprosy lying down under the heat-whispered trees, men with newspapers over their faces, others yawning so deeply it seems like they’re pulling something up from their feet, Kemp and Passepartout decide to have a small nap there too.
Waking hours later – by the sun being blocked out by a shape above his head – Kemp opens his eyes to find Rajha again. His face looking down on him.
“You want to go somewhere?”
“No…I…Have you been here all this time?” say Kemp.
“I wait for you,” says Rajha with a smile and a shy rock of the head.
“But we really don’t want to…”
“No problem, no problem,” Rajha rocks his head back and forth quicker, holds his hands up. “You my friends. I take you somewhere. Where you want to go?”
“But we don’t really want to go anywhere. We’re here all day. We have too much time really…” Kemp says, silently cursing the imperious Mr Ramesh back in their Delhi hotel.
“I have no place to go either.” says Rajha “I take you. No pay. You pay me already.”
“Oh God,” says Kemp. “Ok look,” he says watching at the confused figure of Passepartout waking up with a slowly unscrunching face. “I guess you could take us to…the Fort?”
“Agra Fort. Very good. You like very much,” says Rajha. He wheels his bicycle out over the portly men sleeping on the lawns.
Even though they told him to leave them at the Fort and – half suspecting he might have ignored them and waited outside – they choose to exit by the other imposing gate on the other side of Agra’s Mughal Empire masterpiece from which they’d come in – Rajha is there again.
He insists on them getting in to his rickshaw again. “Come,” he says, patting on the seat behind him. “Come.”
“We don’t have much money you know Rajha.”
“No problem. No pay. You pay me before. We friends. Where we go now?”
“We just want to be alone really. We’re going to go and eat. Thanks Rajha, but we’re going to go now. Thanks, really.”
“This is no problem. Where I take you to go and eat? No pay.”
So Rajha cycles them slowly, hopelessly, around and around Agra. He can’t make it up the climbs so Kemp and Passepartout have to shift and rock themselves forward to give him some momentum as he tackles the hills. At certain points they get out and push Rajha along. Rajha sat up, not peddling, on his saddle.
They eat. They walk the Sadar Bazaar. Rajha is there on every street they come out on to. Inscrutable, unsmiling, placid. Just waiting.
Kemp eventually loses his temper, raises his arms up, shouts on tip-toe, angling towards Rajha. “FOR GOD’S SAKE WE DON’T WANT TO GO ANYWHERE. AND WE HAVE NO MONEY FOR YOU, RAJHA!”
Rajha looks at Kemp for a while. Kemp starts to feel embarrassed in the silence. Rajha doesn’t move. His face shows no emotion whatsoever. Finally he starts to stir. He swallows, his adam’s apple bobs up and down. He shifts on his seat. Kemp wonders if Rajha’s going to hit him.
“This is no problem…No problem…” he says quietly.”You no pay. So…Where we go now?”
After spending far longer then they ever needed in Agra, they end their day back at the station in the gathering dark. The heat still a thick carpet rolled around them.
They fall out of Rajha’s rickshaw.
It is quite clear he wants paying.
As Kemp thanks him, he notices Rajah hand slowly, palm face upwards, comes out.
Kemp, peeve-faced, places a 100 rupee bill down. The hands stays out. Another 100 rupee bill. Rajha’s rickshaw friends start to gather.
“Hey he cycle you all day, man,” says one. “You pay now…”
Rajha’s inscrutable face stares at Kemp. Unblinking. The hand stays out.
Kemp has lost Passepartout on the – older, more rickety – train back to Delhi.
He searches up and down the carriages but can’t find her anywhere. All he can find are many serious-looking middle aged men in suits.
Eventually she’s there. Sat in the middle, chatting to some of these earnest men.
“There’s going to be a strike,” she says, happily, turning round sitting upright. “Tell him…” she says to one of the dour looking men around her.
“There are 2000 of us on this train at this very minute,” he says to Kemp. Calmly, in perfect English.
“There are 13 million of us in total in India. And 2 million of us are on our way to Delhi right now.”
“They’re going to take to the streets. Isn’t it great?” says Passepartout.
“But who’s striking? Who are you?” says Kemp.
The severe-looking man in his short-sleeve shirt and tie, his old fashioned briefcase on his lap, looks Kemp in the eye.
“We are insurance men. And we are angry.”
They can’t stay in Delhi. The days of absolute Indian heat have really set in. Sitting on the city like a weary hippopotamus, crushing everyone below, in the tight streets, gasping for air, desperately for relief.
Mr Ramesh does not know anything about India outside of his city. But he cannot admit this. He talks, in highly suspicious terms, of the dry deserts to the north.
“You will find camels. And not normal camels. Different camels. And no people. People do not survive the heat up there.”
“But Mr Ramesh,” says Kemp. “Isn’t it mountainous up there? Trees and rivers?”
“You will not see a river,” scoffs Mr Ramesh.
“The Ganges?” says Passepartout. “That’s something we’d like to see…”
“This is a western river!” Mr Ramesh laughs at her. His tie done up, his hands clasped together over his genitals, his eyes closed in assured firmness. “You will not find it in the north.”
Kemp and Passpartout get off their north country bus onto the creaking dusty stones under their feet. The Ganges floats wide and fast and surprisingly blue. Or at least not as brown as they expected.
The journey had taken a long time.
The bus at the start was full of a band of dancers and drummers, dressed in silks and turbans with cockatoo red plums and purple and yellow pantaloons clattering up and down the gangway. Then Kemp woke from a deep sleep on the back seat, in the middle of a row of muted, grim-faced women in gold embroidered see-through silk veils. At various other stops, men walked past the window, dazed, covered in paint. Starring in at the bus, blank faced, like war survivors. With maroon painted hair and blue faces.
“It is Holi time,” one passenger tells them.
By the time they leave the bus there are just three other travellers. Two young men keen to talk and tell them about the religion of India. A doughty grandmother sat across the way listens, grumbling to herself.
“Muslims should become Hindus,” says one of the students.
“They were Hindus before, their fathers were made to become Muslims. They should go back.”
“What,” the old lady snaps “500 years ago? You are not right thinking in the head!”
She turns to me “They want me to prove I’m a loyal Indian. Do you know this? Do you know how they ask if I’m a true Indian? If I can do yoga!”
The two young men and the old dowager carry on squabbling. Switching between English and Hindi.
“Cow eater!” Kemp hears one of the students shout at the old lady as they step down off the bus.
The scene here is one of tranquility. Light smears the road that leads away up into the high rising forests. Kemp and Passepartout walk into the village and check into an ashram.
Breakfast is stolen off their plates each morning by evil-faced monkeys. Supernaturally calm men appear on their balcony with extraordinarily loose trousers and no shoes wishing to teach them meditation.
They are in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“Can we walk up into the hills?” Passepartout asks the woman who runs their ashram one morning.
“I would advise you against this activity,” the woman replies, smiling knowingly, her head moving from side to side, as if she was rolling a pea in her ear.
“There is a tiger who lives in these hills.”
“A tiger??” says Passepartout.
“Oh quite so, my dear. People have walked in these hills and never come back.”
Kemp has had enough of these ridiculous assertions by the Indians he had met. The wildly inaccurate directions to places they don’t know just because they can’t say they don’t know. And he’s fed up with this woman’s false smile forever fixed on her face. He places his straw hat on his head and snaps “Well, we’re going. Tiger or not.”
The two of them take off up the wooded slopes. Kemp leading the way, thwacking at the undergrowth in his khaki trousers like some flannelled fool of the Raj.
“Tigers,” he says out loud. As if it’s the most absurd thing he’s heard.
The refreshing scent fills the air as they push through great screens and thickets of vine and bush. Climbing, climbing.
“The Himalayas,” says Kemp, spreading his arms back, as they sit and drink from a pool coming down off the mountains. As if he could embrace and enclose in his arms the 1, 500 miles of range running from the Hindu Kush to the plains of the east where the giant rivers of the Indus and Ganges are always flowing towards, draining the Indian sub-continent.
“Well here we are. Where do we go onto next?” he asks, a little pleased with himself, a little cockily, to Passepartout.
And, before she has the chance to answer, away in the distance, beyond the caves in the cliffs, the glades of juniper and mulberry, the jungle of trees in the lengthening rays, they hear a low deep rumble. A rolling distant rumble, that could only possibly be the sound of a tiger…