We left Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus and stepped over a dead man. He must have been lying there for a while. Gluey fluid was leaking from the body into pools on the hot, roughly paved floor. Hundreds of commuters, flying out from the gothic palace-like railway station behind us, out into the city, hurdled the dead man without thought. Flies crowded his eyes and mouth.
Giristroula and I, made our way – slowly, slightly stunned – down Dr Naoroji Road, enveloped in the vast crowds, Islamic and gothic architecture above us along the street. Men bustling out from old fashioned offices, in wide collared dirty-cream 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. We moved 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 us, clingingly. We had come from Cairo with the idea of travelling onwards, travelling round the world if we could – but all the world seemed to have come to us, here, right now, on these streets.
Cricket was played down the alleyways off the main road, with planks of wood taller than the kid batting. The cliches were all right here. Perhaps another hundred games were being played on the Oval Maidan too – 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, played in a mess of games taking place on this palm-ringed park. Fielders, running for catches, weaved in and out of the crowds merging on the different pitches, like the tuk-tuks whirring through the traffic out on the streets.
We looked for somewhere to stay. On the bending sea road that leads to the Apollo Bunder, the old pier of Bombay, and the Gate of India there was a rackety old building that the man outside claimed very earnestly to be a hotel. I had my doubts, but we took a room. Outside on the boardwalk by the sea, as the light fell on the day, men were sleeping. No things, just men, laid down straight, sleeping one after the other, along the curve of the promenade. Like marks on a clock face. Giristroula and I went and stood under the Gate of India and watched the birds fall and recover and fall again in the dying sky. We 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 we turned now and look inwards from here. We looked past the fussy little balconies and turrets of the imposing Taj Mahal palace hotel, and we thought of this country waiting for us, flowing away as we looked, for thousands of miles.
Our hotel didn’t have a single window in the whole building. The heat was unbearable. The corridor was a mess of exposed wiring and falling plaster. As I tossed on a thin thin mattress bed, I became aware of a commotion outside the door. Words and shouting I couldn’t understand. And then a word I could.
More voices. Some Western voices. “There’s a fire! Get out! Get out!” I sprung from the bed, grabbing at Giristroula. We rushed from the room, out into the narrow hall with other bodies and faces, pushing, shoving, and threw ourselves down the stairs as smoke started to build. As I hurtled down towards the exit, I looked into one open room and saw the man who had greeted us and taken our money on arrival and shown us the cell-like room. He was sat on a bed in one of the bedrooms and was a picture of utter calm, drinking a tea. There was panic down out on the street outside the hotel but not for the staff. New rooms were conjured up by them easily, from thin air – as if near-death had been quite expected. Later we lay in a different grim hotel and a wide-eyed, heat-wrenched, sweat-drenched night passed just waiting for the morning to come. Our very first in Asia. We felt hopelessly abroad.
The new day found us back out again, lost, in sun-streaked Mumbai streets. A hot odour coming up off the pavements, mothers washing kids in the water from the standpipes and limbless men begging next to tea shops and bright red pillar boxes. It was a totally disorienting scene.
Stood in the crowds, standing high above three Indian kids pulling at his trousers, was a very pale man. He was wearing a large brimmed, flopping green hat tied around his chin. He seemed more lost even than me and Giristroula.
“Are you British?” he called out to us.
I looked over at the man.
“I said, are you British?” he shouted again.
“Yes,” I called back. “Well, I am anyway. She’s…”
“Oh good,” the man said, walking over toward us through the crowded children. “I haven’t met anyone British. Only a group of Germans. Are you staying here?”
The man was 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…” said the old man.
“You’re English then are you?” I said, moving closer towards them, past a cow sat in the road.
“Oh no,” chuckled the old man. “No, no, no…” his kind face creased with mirth. He bent slightly, his hands on his thighs. “English…” he said to himself as if he couldn’t really believe he’d heard it right, choking slightly. “No… We’re Welsh.”
“Is that different then?” said Giristroula.
“What?” said the old man. Righting himself up. “What did she say..?”
So, are you on holiday here then?” I said, changing the subject, turning to the younger man.
“Have you asked them?” the old man interrupted, speaking to his son, his gentle green eyes looking me and Giristroula over. “Why not? You need someone.”
I looked between the two men. A little confused.
“Yes, well, er…” said the younger one. “We were wondering… funny question…but how would you like to come to a wedding?”
“You’re getting married?”
“What? In Mumbai”
“No, not in Mumbai,” said the man. “Somewhere near Jaipur. I’m Gareth by the way…” he reached his hand out. “And this is my dad, David.”
I shook their hands, but still didn’t quite understand what’s going on. Giristroula lent over with her hand outstretched.
“You see I’m getting married in two days,” said Gareth. “And I don’t know anyone. It’s just me and Dad here.”
“Are you marrying a Welsh girl?” asked Giristroula.
“No,” said Gareth, as if puzzled by the question, bending his head round to answer Girstroula stood behind me. “An Indian girl.”
He seemed very pleased as he said this. He looked at his father and they both smiled impossible happy little smiles 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 exchanged smiles with his father again. “And now we’re getting married.”
“She has a very big family,” he added.
“And we don’t,” said 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 arses. It’s just me and Gareth.”
“So would you like to come?” asked Gareth.
Giristroula and I looked at each other.
“When is it?” I said, turning back “And where? And how would we get there?”
“It’s in two days,” said Gareth, taking this as a yes and taking out paper and pens from his rucksack to write directions and guides as to where we should go. “This is great… It would be so good to have someone from home to be there,” he said looking down, writing, pen lid in his mouth.
“Well, someone nearly from home anyway,” said the old man quietly. “Close enough…” he muttered to himself.
As Gareth wrote his notes to where we should go, and the father put his hand on our backs, smiling at us, pushing us all close together, I felt we were being peddled, ushered into accepting this ludicrous proposition. I looked at the street children still circling round us on the roadside. I’d expected that maybe we would be gypped and hoodwinked by them, the mysteries and slights of India easily flummoxing us, tricking us like the snake charmer’s backwards look. But not a father and son from Wales.
“Well, we wanted a reason to travel in India,” I said. “We’ve no real plan or route or anything like that. We were trying to get teaching jobs actually, and… Jaipur you said…?” I looked at the scribbled notes on the page. I looked up at Giristroula, bending my head quizzically, looking with questioning eyes that she didn’t seem to reject or decline. “Well, er, I don’t know. Why not..?” I continued to look at Giristroula. “Yes?” I said. Giristroula’s face didn’t seem to show she thought this crazy idea was a crazy idea. “Yes,” she said.
And so with that, we were shaking hands and agreeing to meet at the wedding outside of Jaipur in two days time.
“She has a very big family,” said the old man again. “Very big.”
That evening, we sat on Chowpatty beach eating blazing hot bhel puris and pav bahajis off paper, suffering and blowing out cheeks, watching the young Mumbai girls and boys flirt with each other on the sand shore. The tower blocks of Indian financial world twinkling with reds and blues in the black background. We knew we’d agreed to something very strange indeed. But we didn’t quite know what.
“It’ll probably be very boring in the end,” I said. “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 were left behind us. A fresh day unpeeled itself in the pink city of Jaipur. It had 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 must still keep the city pink – all their houses and buildings – under point of law. A goat stood on a crumbling piece of pink wall above my head. The frescos on the side of the wall seem to be rubbed, even chewed, away. We needed to find someone who would take us to our rendezvous spot, outside of the city. But we were distracted. The buildings, the palaces with their extravagant buttresses within the old walled centre stealing our attention. Although we didn’t have time, we climbed the Sargasuli tower, took in all of Jaipur from 60 feet above. We then lounged in the heat in a surreal ground of weird astrological constructions. The crowds, the traffic, gone, just vast silent walls here curved to the sky. Huge structures angled to point out the planets, giant stairs leading up to the heavens. A funfair of uranology, spirals, slants and points. Mad, colossal ancient sun dials still accurate to within seconds. It told us we were late.
Walking in the tight, strong-smelling old streets, I approached a small open-fronted room, sat just behind a flowing canal of raw sewage running down the side of the road, where a man sat under collapsing mountains of clothes, hammering frantically on a sewing machine. His wife had pushed herself a place, a dent, into the wall of piled clothing at the back and was ironing. Their business premises could not be more than 20 square feet. Could it also be their home too? The man looked up as I approached with my held paper of directions, but before either of us could speak, a pig emerged from the vast embankment of clothing behind him, and squirmed out between my legs.
The tuk-tuk had taken 2 hours to get there. “It’ll probably just be a dull hotel…” I said again as I turned to look at Giristroula. Noticing something in her face, I turned back again to see what she was staring at as the bone-crunching motorcart drew up. “This…This can’t be the right place…” I said, the words falling from my mouth.
Two giant white wooden gates in front of us, fixed in the high stone walls, slowly opened. Women in bright saris and dupattas came forward with trays of flowers, throwing petals onto the two of us as we walked through the archway. I had a garland placed round my neck, paint smeared on my forehead. A cannon blasted from the lawn to announce a new arrival. The grass grounds bowed and swept down towards a turreted palace. As we walked down the route, a riotous scene laid itself out: men playing pipes for dancing cobras to emerge up from wicker baskets lined the paths; servants smiled, clasp their hands together in prayer signs and rocked their heads as we passed; men in white robes held the reins of bawling camels; hundreds of intricate patterns had been created with thousands of flower petals on the ground. A game of polo on thundering horses was taking place on the fields beyond. Smoke and music and dancing girls and coloured tents and silk pavilions. Giristroula and I walked through the crowd of beautifully dressed Sikhs: turbans and cholis, embroidered and decorated. Harrassed waiters rushed around, serving haughty-looking Indian men in long white coats with medals on their breasts.
Stood in the middle – looking impossibly small amongst the other men with their flowing sculptured beards, swords sheathed in their belts – was David. We waved at him from a distance. He looked utterly befuddled by everything. A blast of horns and drums and cheering, and from the portcullis gates came an enormous elephant, with a wooden platform erected on its back, carrying a disconcerted-looking Gareth. Gareth was wearing a diamond encrusted tunic and a gigantic orange turban the size of a large pumpkin.
Giristroula and I were swept in the procession behind the vast swaying elephant towards a temple. In the temple Gareth was taken down from the beast, wet turmeric smeared over this face. He was taken to the front, looking a little desperately for his father, but there was no time. His bride was there. Wrapped in fantastic silks and sashes, her head covered, she looked utterly beautiful. She was tense, poised. David beamed, sat amongst the front row of imposing Sikh warriors.
The couple engaged in practices that must have made sense to all but me, Giristroula, the groom and his father. The wedding couple walked several times round the hall, sat cross legged on the floor, were chanted at by the grand Guru. Indian hymns were sung. The service ended with more great cheering, and Gareth – and David – were hoisted on shoulders and taken outside.
The rest of the day was spent in the sun in the grounds of the immense palace looking out at the gnawed Rajasthan mountain ranges. Fantastically rich, sharply spiced, foods and whiskies were brought again and again by the scampering waiters. The endlessly large family came to talk. They invited us to their houses. Others asked us to occasions to which that we could never keep, but which we agreed to. Agreeing to everything that was offered. The camels were still there to be ridden if we wanted. The acrobats whirling and spinning on their heads in all parts of the ground, over and over again, hour after hour, whether watched or not. The music, the tablas, the dancing. Gareth and David were moved round and round the party, a little shaken-looking, but beaming with perplexed pleasure. We couldn’t snatch a word.
It was a heady, mad, opulent, atmosphere. I sat sprawled on an extravagantly decorated divan, raised a glass and thought what an extraordinary situation we had got into. How did this happen? Suddenly there was a confusion. A smash of glass and cries. The music stopped. The crowd shifted and parted: in the centre of the courtyard a towering turbaned man was revealed with his ceremonial sword in his hand. The lights of the palace reflected and danced off it. He had the blade of the sword pressed to another bearded man’s stomach. The crowd jostled back and forth, craning to see what would happen. Eventually the man was talked down from his furious positions and the crowd, perhaps a little disappointed went back to the revelry.
Giristroula and I later made our way to one of the bungalows that had been given to us for the night in the palace grounds. As we walked in the moonlight we saw the same two warring men arms round each other, now laughing and drinking. It had been the strangest day.
The family wouldn’t allow us to go back to Jaipur to carry on our Indian travel. Even though I wanted to get back to the station to continue the journey by train, they wouldn’t think of it. A car and driver were summoned up. A black limo with a short unsmiling Indian with an Elvis quiff.
“The call me The Bollyguard” he told us as he drove us along. “I look after you.” He turned in his seat to look at us. “I can get you anything you want,” he said, fixing his eyes on me. “Anything…”
We drove through the Rajasthan countryside. It felt utterly surreal to be here, sat in this black stretch car and to watch outside through tall green grasses, as men lead 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, pulled a filthy can from a well. Parrots, crows, shrike, kite, humming birds perched on the trees and telegraph wires.
“Where am I taking you?” asked the driver.
“We’re going round the world…” I said.
“I’ll take you to Udaipur,” he said.
We ate breakfast on the roof over the lake in Udaipur in bright sunshine. Then walked the crooked streets and through the courtyards and terraces of the massive palace above the city. The shops in the streets below spilled with craftwork and art and instruments and we entered one shop selling sitars. I tried playing one of the long-necked carved contraptions, getting no tune out of it whatsoever, and it was taken from his hand by the owner, who flashily played for us sat cross-legged on his shop floor, eyes closed, his head thrown backwards. I picked up a battered, dog-eared copy of ‘Shout!’ a Beatles biography sat on one of the shelves as he played.
“Put that down please,” said the shop owner, quickly coming out of his reverie.
“I was just looking at…”
“Put it down please.” His voice 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 I only had a vague interest in the book, the shop owner’s manner had both annoyed and intrigued me.
“Why can’t I buy it?” I insisted. “Tell me how much I could give you for it?” I started getting rupee notes from my pocket.
“You cannot have it…”
The shop owner snapped. He got up off the floor and marched up to me, ripped the book out of his hands.
“You cannot have it…. One of these men,” he said slowly, looking at the cover, then back at me. “One of these men, he gave it to me.”
“One of the Beatles came here and gave you the book?”
“Was it George?”
“I do not 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 us were waved out of the shop. Back onto the fly blown streets.
We walked the beauty of Udaipur. Past a contorted swami, sat legs in knots on the steps of the Jagdish temple. “Where do we go now?” I said to Giristroula. “Do you remember we were meant to be teaching?” I laughed thinly at the idea. “Teaching round the world. That 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…” said Giristoula 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?” I said. My 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; the women drifting along the unswept street with large metal pots on their heads; a peacock striding with large 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 we crossed the arched bridge – the grand white palace to our right, floating in the centre of the lake, admiring its own marbled reflections in the water – I saw him too. Loitering in the crowds, his elbows up on the balustrades, insouciant, the Elvis quiff and the disdainful face, watching as we passed.
We ate that night on the rooftops again. The city glimmering below us as we ate the thalis and drank the lassis. The driver walked past our table, slowly, looking down on us, keeping eye-contact until he disappeared round the corner into the night. The next morning as we left the hotel, slouched against the wall, he was there again. I remembered reading Bagheera, the cunning sleek black panther of Kipling’s Jungle Book was born here in Udaipur. I walked up to the man. My heart starting to beat a little harder.
“What do you want Mr Bollyguard?” I asked. “Why are you following us?”
“You want me to drive you somewhere?”
“Oh,” I said. Relieved. Relieved at last that this is all he wanted. I looked at Giristroula. Giristroula looked back.
“Yes. Yes I think we do.”
Jodhpur. The blue city. We were left on a broken road in its centre. Not as graceful as Udaipur, it felt more threatening, a little more menacing. Instantly Giristroula and I were jostled by the crowds. A girl passed us, begging, dragging herself along the road on wooden block on her hands and feet. Wandering goats picked at whatever they could. The heat had invaded everywhere: the buildings, the roads, the trees. The sun sat deep in a dust haze above us.
Above the city was the mammoth, brooding – cannons and honeycombed windows – Mehrangarh Fort. Music played high in the minarets from somewhere. It called us up. Opening doors, climbing stone stairs, crossing deserted halls, we went searching. And then there they were: two musicians playing the tanpurer and santoor. Singing slow Rajasthan folk ragas. The two performers were lost in their music spiraling up and up and up. Finally they stopped and looked forward at us, coming out of their trance. It seems they had only just noticed us, sat there watching them. There was a long pause as we looked at each other. I felt the need to say something.
“I like your shirt,” I said, eyeing the faded pink Jodhpuri collarless shirt the santoor player was wearing.
“Then you must have it!” the man said, springing to his feet, starting to unbutton his shirt
“Oh. No. I didn’t mean…” I started.
“Yes. You have my shirt. I have yours…” the man gestured at my embarrassingly white shirt.
When night fell, Giristroula and I were again lured by music. Drums, chanting. We fell off the road into a tight, small alley, lit by candles. There was a crowd here, bouncing up and down, droning, chanting. Heads rollings, eyes in the back of their heads. This crazed crowd faced one way, bouncing rhythmically, looking towards a shrine dedicated to Vishnu – where the God stood, pale blue and four armed – then the crowd, as one, leaping up and down to the sound of the pounding drums, switched and faced the other way, towards a shrine for the elephant-headed Ganesha. Everyone was out of it. Stupefied with their devotion. And ganga. Or bhang lassi. The burning incense was intense. Coloured powder covered the faces and sat thick on the air. There were wild stares, hysteria. Giristroula and I were dragged further and further in and we were started to be crushed. Still the chanting went on, the rhythmic bouncing. First one way, then the other. It was unrelenting. Suffocating. Frightening. We battled our way out.
“Jesus, what was that?” I said, trying to breath again.
Giristroula lent herself on the wall, as if she’d been holed somewhere under the plimsoll line. She just rested there, shaking her head.
“I’m glad we’re doing this together,” I said. “You know, I could never have done any of this alone.”
I looked at the Greek girl who had found me and taken me from my safe, dull, London life. I took her in my arms and smiled down at her. Kissing her. “Thank you…”
Drinking Masala chai in the new day – the spiced tea boiled with milk and that is, we both dwelt privately, fairly disgusting. We were late again.
There was a train leaving Jodhpur, north, that would travel during the night to Delhi. But we had been squandering the day sat under the Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower of Rajasthan, eating omelettes served up on the street. The train was going to leave and we were miles away. The tea stall owner’s son offered to help, getting out his broken down moped. We got on the back of the collapsed machine and were sped through the ginnels and market passageways of Jodhpur. A flashing blur from waist height of street sellers, urns of coloured spices, cauldrons of cooking lentils, sacks of nuts and seeds, squawking parakeets attacking the bars of cages as we passed. Under the gaudy advertising poster for Pepsi and the racks of fake Disney t-shirts a basket of silks fell, and spread out on the floor like spilt honey.
Jodhpur station was alive too. Women carrying trunks up on their heads; naked children waddling and roaming along the platform; men were washing under the taps or sleeping on sacks; ancient handcarts filled, towering, with all the chattels of life imaginable. There were First, Second and Third class waiting rooms. And even First, Second and Third class toilets. Giristroula and I sat on the platform and waited for their train. It was delayed.
“I guess we’re going to be here a while,” I said. “I’m going for a walk around.”
“Mmm mmm,” said Giristroula. Not looking up from her book.
I walked to the end of the line. Looked at the late afternoon, sun-smeared scene. I watched trains pull in and watched them empty and then fill again. Like an old rusted lung. The trains then pulled off, doors open, men hanging from openings in a mass of legs and bodies. The 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 I returned to where I’d left Giristroula, I saw a ring of men had gathered round her. They were circling. Not saying anything, but watching her. Smiling. Leering. I walked up to this stalking, baiting group and stood next to Giristroula. But the young men didn’t back away. They stood, eyeballing the two of us, grinning diabolically. One man licked his lips slowly and purposefully at Giristroula. It was alarming, this rotating scene of staring men. I spotted two India police guards stood on an iron bridge crossing over the platforms – two men in green uniforms, green berets, chatting and lounging. I left Giristroula briefly and run over and told them of the men below, circling their prey. Circling my Giristroula. One of the officers – tall, barrel-chested, a prodigious moustache hanging like an adult sloth under his substantial nose – made his way slowly down onto the platform. His thick, dark, wooden stick swinging by his side. He clumped it into his hand heavily as he neared the gang. They spotted him, and like cats at a fallen dustbin lid, scattered to all sides of the station. I watched 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 arrived, heavily pulling up to the platform, creaking and travelling so impossibly slowly under its vast weight. We found our sparse, grim, double sleeping compartment and watched the loading for what felt like hours. I kept checking that this was the Delhi-bound train: exact, official, verdicts on where the train was going seemed to vary wildly. Finally the train shuddered, the floors banged, and it started, slowly, through the final gloaming light of Jodhpur’s evening. As we passed out of the station, out into the open land, a farewell committee of three men and one pig were in a perfect line, in perfect time, shitting by the side of the rail.
The long sleeper train groaned its way into the falling night. Going not much faster than running pace. Stopping every 20 minutes or so. At nearly every stop there was a glare of activity. The two guards in our carriage seemed to be given a new dish of curry at each station. They seemed remarkably happy, sat on the floor by the open doors, piling up metal plates, stomachs pushing through their old uniforms. There was nothing for Giristroula and I to eat on the train though. I asked the two guards if they could get us some curry on the next stop, they looked up through their mouthfuls of food, not stopping chewing, and shook their heads.
I walked through the train. The other compartments weren’t as quiet as ours. The seating part of the train, not the sleeping compartments, was where everyone was 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 had alcove bunks, with people tumbling out. Hundreds of pairs of naked feet, pointing up, pointing down, poking out of curtains. I battled through. Irritable faces jutted out of the bunks and glowered into mine, before snapping back in again. I returned to Girstroula in our grey cabin, which suddenly seemed like a palace.
We arrived at Delhi station in the morning, in the dark, before the sun had risen. Outside the station was a riot of action. Tuk-tuks hawking for business; rugs thrown out, men trying to sell the new arrivers plastic lighters, toys; other men offering more sinister produce. A chatter, like a jungle dawn, riding over the whole scene. Chirruping voices, musical cries.
Delhi in the daylight was louder. Walking the streets, we pushed through the crush of people, tripping over the dogs with weeping sores lying in the dust. I kept losing Giristroula. Then I heard cries behind me. Fearful for her safety, panicking, I pushed back through the crowds, shouting her name, lifting myself up on my toes, anxious to find her… the crowds parter briefly and I found Giristroula thwacking at a balled-up, cowering figure of man on the pavement. He was the third, or forth or fifth man in the last hour to have grabbed at her breast. Her patience had snapped. I rescued the petrified-looking man.
Giristroula and I entered the Jama Masjid mosque. Hoping for peace here, in India’s largest place of prayer. We stood on the balcony of the triple domed, high arched-gated, red sandstone sanctuary. Looking out over the city burning up in the sunset. Birds scattered high above the giant minarets.
“We are closing now.”
I fell out of my trance and looked down at a thin moustached man with prominent tombstone teeth looking up at me.
“We are closing,” said the man. “Go now. Go now.” He started to flap and push us.
“But we’ve only just got here,” I protested.
“Yes, but you go now.”
“But why? We’ve just got here…”
“It is prayer time. Only Muslims. You go now.”
I felt aggrieved. I didn’t want to go. “But I’m a Muslim,” I said.
The man stopped pushing at me. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m a Muslim,” I repeated, slowly, wondering what on earth I was doing. I looked over at Giristroula who had turned her face away and was rubbing her eyebrow with her thumb in an embarrassed fashion.
“Oh,” said the man. He thought for a moment. “You here to pray?”
“Yes,” I said.
I could hear Giristroula let out a low groan.
“Oh….” said the man, and he started to walk away. Turning back and looking at me a few times, a little unsure.
Giristroula strode up close to my face. “Why did you say that?” she hissed.
“I don’t really know.”
The great white and black squared marble floor started to fill up with men coming to pray in the huge open atrium. Wearing long white kaftans, white skull caps, they poured into the immense walled grounds, more and more of them, responding to the call to prayer, the wails from the Muezzin that hung up on the peach coloured sky above us. We were stranded, in a flood of men – and the few women – pouring into the mosque. We stood there, conspicuous, as the hundreds of worshipers bowed and then knelt and rose in prayer. And we looked despairingly for a way out. The large cupsed gates were shut. With their noses to the ground, bottoms in the air, I gingerly stepped through these devoted worshippers. Apologising as I tripped and stood on bare feet. I dropped my shoes clattering on the ground and thought what a fool I was. Eventually someone let us out of a door and we were back into Delhi – sinking without a trace back onto the crowded streets.
Mr Ramesh at our hotel told us we 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 looked closely at us. “Yes,” he nodded to himself “I know I am right…”
Mr Ramesh was sure about this early start, as he seemed sure about most things. Our hotel owner, was a diminutive man with a face like a cadaver. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back with a meditative assurance. “And you must stay in Agra till the very last train. The very last one. And even then you will still not have seen enough…”
I was uncertain about Mr Ramesh’s advice. He had earlier been unable to direct us to a restaurant only a few hundred yards down the road from his hotel, giving us 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 us when we returned, complaining of his bad directions. “You must have made a mistake in your hearing, I am thinking this, yes yes, you must have made a mistake…”
His potted history of the Delhi’s Red Fort before we set off one morning had absolutely no relation to anything I found in my guide book. But for some reason we listened to him once again with his unsolicited Agra information, and so found ourselves at Delhi train station a little after 5am. We bought our tickets and booked a reservation for the very last train back. The train to Agra was new and long: countless carriages stretched away down the platform. As it set off on its route through the Uttar Pradesh countryside of bamboo and green grasses and birds sitting on the back of bullocks in the morning’s soft light – I looked out of the window and looked down the track running off into the mist. The train bent in a long silver curve round the green basin, into a tunnel more than half a kilometre in front of me. And there was still more train that flowed away behind.
Arriving at Agra station we were approached by a man on a rickshaw bicycle and we asked him how much to take us to the Taj Mahal. “100 rupees,” we were told. So we set off. Rajha, our man, a stringy young man in old grey trousers and rope sandals. strained us up to the palace. The Taj Mahal glowed in smooth, white, brilliant marble on a deep endless blue backdrop. The air and space around the walls and dome and the calligraphy up the giant smooth sides. It was a building with a soul. It blocked out, screened, the sight and thought of the hundreds of other visitors here. How did it pulled this trick? It was just us. Giristroula and me and the Taj.
Rajha had been waiting outside. It might have been hours that we’d been in there, gazing, lost, preoccupied, staring 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 asked.
“No, it’s ok Rajha. We’re ok. We don’t need anything. Thank you. Thank you.”
We went for a walk and seeing men, sun-drunk in the grounds behind the Hospital for Leprosy lying down under the trees – men with newspapers over their faces, others yawning so deeply it seems like they’re pulling something up from their feet – Giristroula and I decided we should have a small nap there too. Waking an hour later – by the sun being blocked out by a shape above my head – I opened my eyes to find Rajha again. His face looking down on me.
“You want to go somewhere?”
“No…I…Have you been here all this time?” I said.
“I wait for you while you sleep,” said Rajha with a smile and a shy rock of the head.
“But we really don’t want to…”
“No problem, no problem,” Rajha rocked his head back and forth quicker, held his hands up. “You are 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…” I said, silently cursing the imperious Mr Ramesh back in our Delhi hotel.
“I have no place to go either.” said Rajha “I take you. No pay. You pay me already.”
“Oh God…Ok look,” I said, watching the confused figure of Giristroula waking up, her face slowly unscrunching in the afternoon light. “I guess you could take us to…the Fort?”
“Agra Fort. Very good. You like very much,” said Rajha. He wheeled his bicycle straight over the fat stomached man sleeping on the lawns.
Even though we told him to leave us at the Fort, we half suspected he might have ignored us and waited outside for us again. So we choose to exit by the other imposing gate on the other side of Agra’s Mughal Empire masterpiece from which we’d come in. But Rajha was there again. He insisted on us getting in to his rickshaw again. “Come,” he said, 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 cycled us slowly, hopelessly, around and around Agra. He couldn’t make it up the climbs of the town so Giristroula and I had to shift and rock ourselves forward to give him some momentum as he tackled the hills. At certain points we got out and pushed Rajha along. Rajha sat with his feet up, the peddles slowly turning in the air.
We ate. We walked the Sadar Bazaar. Rajha was there on every street we came out on to. Unsmiling, placid, just waiting. Eventually I lost my temper, raised my arms up, shouted on tip-toe, angling towards Rajha. “FOR GOD’S SAKE, RAJHA, WE DON’T WANT TO GO ANYWHERE. AND WE HAVE NO MORE MONEY!”
Rajha looked at me for a while. I felt embarrassed in the silence. Rajha didn’t move. His face showed no emotion whatsoever. Finally he started to stir. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. I wondered if he was going to hit me. “This is no problem…” he said quietly.”No problem…You pay already,” he said slowly “So…Where we go now?”
After spending far longer then we ever needed in Agra, we ended the day back at the station in the gathering dark. The heat still a thick carpet rolled around us. We fell out of Rajha’s rickshaw. It was quite clear he wanted paying. As I thanked him, I noticed Rajah hand slowly, palm face upwards, come out. Slightly annoyed, but expecting it, I placed another 100 rupee bill down. The hands stayed out. Another 100 rupee bill. Rajha’s rickshaw friends started to gather.
“Hey, he cycle you all day, man,” said one. “You pay him now…”
Rajha’s inscrutable face stared at me. Unblinking. The hand stayed out.
I lost Giristroula on the – older, more rickety – train back to Delhi. I searched up and down the carriages but couldn’t find her anywhere. All I could find were many serious-looking middle aged Indian men in suits. Eventually she was there – sat in the middle, chatting to some of these earnest men.
“There’s going to be a strike,” she said, happily, turning round sitting upright. “Tell him…” she said to one of the dour looking men around her.
“There are 2000 of us on this train at this very minute,” he said to me, 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?” said Giristroula.
“But who’s striking? Who are you?” I said.
The severe-looking man in his short-sleeve shirt and tie, his old fashioned briefcase on his lap, looked me in the eye.
“We are insurance men. And we are very angry.”
We couldn’t stay in Delhi. The days of absolute Indian heat had really set in, sitting on the city like a heavy animal crushing everyone below in the tight streets, gasping for air, desperately for relief.
Mr Ramesh did not know anything about India outside of his city. But he could not admit this. He talked, 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,” I said. “Isn’t it mountainous up there? Trees and rivers?”
“You will not see a river,” said Mr Ramesh.
“The Ganges?” said Giristroula. “That’s something we’d like to see…”
“This is a western river!” Mr Ramesh laughed at her. “Oh my dear, you know so very little don’t you…” he said. His tie done up tight, his eyes closed, his hands folded over his genitals.
“You will not find this river in the north.”
Giristroula and I stepped off our north country bus onto the creaking dusty stones under our feet. The Ganges floated wide and fast and surprisingly blue. Or at least not as brown as we’d 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 I awoke from a deep sleep on the back seat, in the middle of a row of muted 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 told us, in explanation. By the time we left the bus there were just three other travellers: two young men keen to talk and tell us about the religion of India, and a doughty grandmother sat across the way listening, grumbling to herself.
“Muslims should become Hindus,” said one of the students. “They were Hindus before, their fathers were made to become Muslims. They should go back.”
“What,” the old lady snapped “500 years ago? You are not right thinking in the head!” She turned 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 woman carried on squabbling. Switching between English and Hindi. “Cow eater!” I heard one of the students shout at the old lady as we stepped down off the bus.
But the scene here, in the nothern reaches of India, was one of tranquility. Light smeared the road that led away up into the high rising forests. Giristroula and I walked into the village and checked into an ashram.
Breakfast was stolen off our plates each morning by evil-faced monkeys. Supernaturally calm men appeared on our balcony with extraordinarily loose trousers and no shoes wishing to teach us meditation. We were in the foothills of the Himalayas.
“Can we walk up into the hills?” Giristroula asked the woman who ran our ashram one morning.
“I would advise you against this activity,” the woman replied, smiling falsely, her head moving from side to side, as if she was rolling a pea in her ear.
“There is a tiger which lives in these hills.”
“A tiger?” said Giristroula.
“Oh quite so, yes. People have walked in these hills and have never come back.”
I’d had enough of these ridiculous assertions by the Indians I’d met. The wildly inaccurate directions to places they don’t know just because they can’t say they don’t know. And I was fed up with this woman and her smile fixed on her face. I placed my straw hat on my head and snapped. “Well, we’re going…” I felt a little self-conscious at my outburst, but pigheadly led the two of us on, up towards the wooded slopes. I led the way higher, thwacking at the undergrowth in my ridiculous khaki trousers, like some flannelled fool of the Raj. “Tigers,” I said out loud, as if it was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard. Scent filled the air as we pushed through great screens and thickets of vine and bush. Climbing, climbing.
“The Himalayas,” I said, spreading my arms back, as we sat and drank from a pool coming down off the mountains. It was as if I could embrace and enclose it all in my arms: the whole 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 were always flowing towards, draining the Indian sub-continent.
“Well here we are,” I said. sitting back on the grass. “We’ve made it to the Himalayas. Where do we go onto next?” I asked Giristroula, a little pleased with myself, a little cockily. But before she had the chance to answer, away in the distance, beyond the caves in the cliffs and the glades of juniper and mulberry, the jungle of trees in the lengthening rays, we heard a low deep rumble. A rolling distant rumble. A sound that could only be that of a growling tiger.