(This is the text of a letter I wrote in 1992 about a trip to India in 1991. I have edited out bits that were nothing to do with that trip, and corrected a few typos, but everything else is much as I wrote it.)
It was another crystal clear morning. After the chaos of breakfast on the building site in the hotel, we decided to go for breakfast in Connaught Place, for a western entrance to the day. Nirula’s breakfast bar was full of tourists, all trying to hide their Lonely Planet Guides (like us); they were also studiously trying to avoid each other’s eyes (like us), knowing that eating bacon and eggs for breakfast was somehow not quite the thing to be seen doing. Whereas elsewhere, conversations would have been struck up across the room, as hotels and trains were compared and horror stories swapped, here people kept quiet.
G. had bought an Indian paper; the stories were just the same as in English papers: politicians and actresses, scandals and crimes; companies going bust, businesses in court; just the same. The little fifth column stories were slightly different, though – the small throwaway tales, one column-paragraph (“man bites dog”). In India, they were on a totally different, alien scale: tales of human disaster on a frightening scale: “dam breaks in … three hundred drown”… “a petrol tanker came off the road at… and crashed into a village; 90 die as homes engulfed in flames”… And these were the little stories, the ones that no-one reads (not the real news, just something to fill the time at the coffee break). The value of life truly is variable; and in a nation with nearly 1 billion people, another 200 or so don’t really matter. Now, if a foreigner was involved – that was headlines… (There is apparently a rule of thumb for journalists: 1000 Asians = 100 continental Europeans = 10 Americans = one British child’s plimsoll lost on the beach.)
We went from Connaught Square to the main tourist office on Janpath; the trouble was, we couldn’t find it. We were trying to check that we would actually be allowed to go to Darjeeling – there were periodic battles between guerrillas and the army, when the whole area was sealed off. The missing tourist office we took to be a good sign, and we headed to the Observatory.
The scale of the red-painted structures set against the blue sky, and their bizarre shapes, was beautiful. The intersecting curves and lines, parallel steps and the depths of shadows falling across them made them impressive sculptures. They twisted into foreign characters, like Chinese script or mystical symbols (the curves feminine and expectant; the tall straight lines, male and pompous beneath the sun). There were groups of school children playing on them, hiding in the crevasses and shadows as they might play beneath the dinosaurs of the Natural History museum. I climbed the stair of the largest structures, giant sundials; from above, the smaller clocks and sextants seemed flat, but more important than the figures that strolled around them. This was astronomy.
We went from the Observatory to the station in Old Delhi; the auto-rickshaw took us there past the Red Fort, in the same flood of traffic as the previous day. The station is north of Chandni Chowk, on another large road. As we approached, it more looked like a village than a train station: there were hordes of people camped around it, some with tents made from carpets (as I might imagine a tribe in the desert), with their children and animals; there were large piles of cardboard boxes tied up with string, sacking and sealing wax; sack of grains, rice and spices. There was bargaining and selling going on, and non-stop chatter and bustle.
We climbed the few steps into the station, past beggars and children (London had hardened me to the calls for alms). The village was set up inside the station as well, making it inconceivable that this was actually a train station. With the large number of people, it was impossible to tell where you should go or what you should do; the usual things you expect to see in a station (from a western perspective, of course; roots run deep) couldn’t be seen: they were there – a ticket office, a waiting room (used as a bedroom whilst people waited days for their train), a baggage hall – they were all there, but lost beneath the humanity. Instead, it took on an organic form, the fabric of the station heaving as the village breathed, cracking as it limped, dripping as it cried; echoing as it talked.
We weren’t there for a real reason: we weren’t going anywhere, and that we had in common with nearly everyone else there. But we were watching, looking; whilst they were living. We went up the stairs that spanned the many platforms; the bridge was covered in chicken wire, presumably to stop people throwing themselves off. There were few trains in the station, so we went onto the one platform that had a steam locomotive on it. There were piles of straw scattered on the platform, and the same cardboard packages that we had seen out on the forecourt. Women squatted in the shade, their children playing at their heals. We walked the length of the platform, to the locomotive. It was large and black, and it too looked like it was held together with string and sealing wax. Steam erupted from the pistons by the wheels; the firebox gave of a glow of red-hot coal. There was a layer of heavy dust over the engine, but the large silver star on the front was polished clean. Pustules of rust grew beneath the black paint. The engine driver, a rotund jovial Indian with a thin moustache, almost like a train driver from a children’s book, with a blue handkerchief tied around his sweating neck, invited us onto the driving platform. He blew the whistle for us a couple of times, letting out a cloud of steam and a high pitched scream, which caused many passengers run along the platform as they gathered their belongings, thinking their turn to travel had come. They returned to the tea-stalls and benches; G. amused them by buying a glass of tchai. We left the station, avoiding the children at our heals, and crossed the road. There was a lens-shaped park running between the station road and Chandni Chowk; there were railing along the path, but they were in disrepair. A camel was sitting on the grass; a large number of soldiers or police, with guns, were doing likewise. A cow watched them watch us, lazily. Just after the park was a police station, which was covered in graffiti – political slogans – painted in faded red paint.
We walked up Chandni Chowk again, but we were feeling more adventurous: I was over my culture-shock paranoia, and so we explored up many of the alleys that struck off north and south from the bazaar. They were narrow and dark (my eyes took time to adapt after the brightness on the street), cutting between buildings where it looked like there should be no space. They were crowded, too, as streams of people moved in both directions, carrying sacks on the backs, bags in their hands, or pushing carts and bicycles laden with goods. There were rules of the road that everyone else knew but us: the porters cursed us, as we seemed to be the only things getting in their way; the paranoia may have gone, but the claustrophobia was still there; there were a couple of lanes down which I refused to go, just because of the vast number of people that seemed intent on doing so. (Perhaps that would have been a good reason to follow them: they must have been going somewhere!)
We got some very odd looks as we walked through the mud and dust. Shopkeepers came out to see us (“don’t see many strangers in these parts”), and everyone seemed friendly except when we got in the way of their trade, which was often.
Most of the alleys just seemed to stop, dissolving into a hinterland of warren-like tenements; old women and children hung out of windows, watching us. Some people were doing their washing – how it got clean with the dust heavy in the air I do not understand. Different alleys seemed to sell different things, like specialist markets. There seemed to be a shop or stall for anything, and some for everything: tables crowded with nuts and screws, pots and pans hanging from every inch of wall space; there were tailors quarters and cloth-alleys, where the customers sat barefoot on brightly coloured carpets, as the stall keepers pulled out rolls of cloth.
Following one cart down an alley on the south of Chandni Chowk, we came into a large courtyard. There were small porters carrying huge sacks on their backs, far heavier than themselves; there were porters everywhere, hurrying under their weight. The centre of the courtyard had been built in, so that the square had an small alley around the outside, which was overlooked by the outer buildings. The stalls had awnings over the path. Every shop and stall sold spices, and the scents filled the air. Sunlight filtered through cinnamon and pepper dust, and it was hard to breathe; some of the porters had simple masks over their mouths and noses. G. and I were sneezing, to the general hilarity of the stallholders. We looked around for several minutes, until the spice dust became too much to bear, and our eyes were streaming; we were getting in the way. (We continued sneezing for several hours, so it seemed like we had caught colds in the stifling alleys.)
We went right to the end of Chandni Chowk, where there was a mosque, painted purple; the road went to the right and left, and we took both directions, the right first; this soon petered out, so we double backed and headed into an archipelago formed by densely dissecting alleys. We weaved our path through, stopping for drinks to ease our spice-sore throats. We passed through the metal-work area, through lanes selling only books – new and second hand, any variety of languages, mostly text books, but on any topic – Shakespeare, biology, nuclear physics, economics – printed on cheap fibre paper; shops selling writing paper and vast numbers of greetings cards.
We followed the alleys, and found ourselves approaching the main mosque again. Although it was earlier, the sun was close to setting, and it was too late to go in. (I don’t think either of us minded much; I feel uneasy about turning religion into a tourist attraction.) We sat on the steps, ignoring the beggars and the children (or trying to; then G. started playing a simple game with the kids, joking with them. He even gave them some money in the end…), watching the sun go down and the walls turn pink again, as the muzzeins’ cries flew across the rooftops.
We settled into the main business of the day, which was deciding where we would eat. Lonely Planet recommended many restaurant on the Main Bazaar, a road full of hotels near the New Delhi Station. We got in an auto-rickshaw, and asked the driver to take us to the station; it was dark by the time we arrived. The station had a long driveway. We had a look at the humanity camping inside the station, and the general disorganisation (and disorientation) there. It was much like the village we had found at the Old Station.
We walked back down the drive; the map showed that the Main Bazaar was directly opposite. There was nothing there. We wandered around, and found a likely road (there were no street signs), but there were no hotels on it; it looked like the main street from a John Wayne western, with raised walkways rather than pavements, but the Indians were from the other side of the world. Worse, of course, there were no bars; convinced that somehow we had come to the wrong place, we found a taxi and rode back to New Delhi. (I went to New Delhi station near the end of my trip; the Main Bazaar, crowded with hotels and restaurants (none of which looked like they’d be great places to eat in) was right opposite, and the station was not at the end of a drive. The driver must have taken us to another station: Delhi has several.)
We went to the Imperial Hotel for a drink, a long cold lager (or three) in a bar true to the hotel’s name: it was something out of the Raj. A tall room, white painted with ceiling fans, and screens separating part of the room (for women? for quiet, intimate conversations?); we sat on whicker stools. We were looking dirty, since we’d been out in the dust all day; we felt like old hands at this game (after only two days…), dressed in lightweight khaki trousers and walking boots. The atmosphere is the bar was of an old clubhouse: you could imagine the planters coming in for sundowners, or Hemingway showing up before a tiger hunt. We weren’t out of place.
We finally had dinner at the Gaylord restaurant on Connaught Place. This was like the archetypical Indian restaurant, right down to the flock wallpaper. (Are Indian restaurants in the UK like this because they conform to our cliches, or to the Indian proprietors’? On the basis of the Gaylord, it must be theirs; unless the cliche goes right back to the Raj, and we imported it to India before it bounced in the 60s.) The food was far better than you get in London, though.
We had to get up at 4am: we were on a flight to Bagdogra at 6am, and we didn’t have a great deal of faith in the timekeeping. (Another lesson in Indian ways: everything happens early. All the trains I took left at 6; all the planes. I am not too sure why; maybe it is because Indians don’t sleep much – at whatever hour we were up, there was always something happening, people going off to work, being busy. Perhaps it evolved because of the heat – moving is easier in the cool of morning, but now it seems anachronistic – planes and trains arrive whenever – why leave so early?) Checking out of the hotel was a similar adventure to checking in: we had to go to a couple of desks to pay and return the keys. We tipped the staff behind the desks, since we both knew we’d be passing through again. It was a cold drive to the airport, the traffic sparse.
The flight over the plains was easy, and half empty. We flew parallel to the Himalayas, which were sometimes hidden below cloud. The plains looked arid. We landed at Bagdogra, recovered our bags, and decided what to do next. We thought there was a bus, but the tourist office seemed resolutely closed. G. demanded breakfast, so we went into the airport canteen for a bite to eat. When we came out, there was no sign of a bus (personally, I think we missed it, but G. thinks it didn’t exist). We did however have to go through a long sequence of form filing whilst our visas were checked; the passport office had closed because he thought all the passengers had gone (whilst we were hiding in the canteen). There were two taxis remaining, both of whom were marketing themselves at us aggressively whilst we completed the bureaucracy.
How to get to Darjeeling – whether to try to find the toy-train (a six hour journey) or to get the bus (four hours) or taxi (two). They were trying to charge us an absurd amount to get to Darjeeling – about £50. We settled on a fifth of that and climbed into a new Toyota combi.
We set off a long the trans-Indian highway (once the main thoroughfare of the silk route, and still the busiest road in Asia, from Calcutta through to Afghanistan); the other traffic was huge lorries, thundering on, forcing their way through.
The combi weaved and dodged the lorries, avoided the pedestrians, dogs and cows, and went into Siliguri, the nearest town to the airfield. Siliguri is a sprawling place, formed at a big railway and road junction. The minibus pulled into the central market area, and parked by all the taxis. The driver got out, leaving us (tired, hot and paranoid) wondering what was going on. The driver came back, after a quick discussion with the taxi drivers, and said that we would change cars here, one of the heavy Ambassador taxis would take us up the mountain road to Darjeeling.
Most pissed off, we finally agreed to the swap; the driver paid the taxi driver a quarter of what we had paid him, and drove off; this was the only time I was aware of being ripped off in India: the second driver got a quarter of the fare for 95% of the driving.
We waited a while; we were put on hold until the driver had rustled up some more passengers. Expecting to be totally ripped off – I could picture the headlines, “two foreigners missing in West Bengal” – we held on to our packs and muttered quietly to each other about how we’d like to immolate the driver who picked us up at the airport.
We finally set off for the drive up from the plains to the Himalayas. The mountains rose sharply; the road followed a spur from the hills. It cut this way and that, meandering uphill. We were crowded in the taxi – a total of six passengers – but a lot faster than the buses, which we kept overtaking; they were fully laden – people hanging on the outside, parcels piled high on the roofrack. We passed a couple that had broken down.
As we climbed, it got colder. The vegetation changed from dry grassland scrub to open woods, and then to patches of forest (where it hadn’t been cut down). The road was in poor condition, with sections collapsing into the valley, large cracks, and rockfalls. The toy train’s tracks were up – we couldn’t have taken it anyway: it had been damaged in the rains (which year, we weren’t sure) and hadn’t been in full operation for several months. There were piles of earth lying over the tracks (the road and the railway crossed each other several times); there was only a partial service, from Darjeeling down to the next town.
The journey was slow – it was not very far from Siliguri to Darjeeling, but it was steep, and the lorries and buses had to go slowly. The road was a maze of hairpins, cutting into the mountains and then doubling back over the hillside, giving us a view of a vertical descent into the valley beside the ridge-spur we were climbing. At each bend there were milestones that gave the height and distance to Darjeeling; there were also signposts that gave the number of traffic fatalities on that particular bend, and little comments, like “do not worry, please don’t hurry”, and “it is better to arrive late than to be the late“. At first these seemed quite quaint, Zen comments on the danger of driving on the mountains; but as time went on, I felt I didn’t need reminders of the dangers involved – the erratic steering and the precipitous view were enough. As we approached a petrol tanker laboriously climbing the mountain in first gear and we swerved out to over take, I now saw more headlines – “Tanker crash on road to Darjeeling – two foreigners and two hundred locals engulfed in petrol inferno…”. My knuckles were white from strain.
We passed through little hamlets, each with a lot of police and soldiers. The government of West Bengal was based in Calcutta, and there were various factions of freedom fighters in the hills; the hillsmen of Darjeeling, Sherpas and Tibetans more than Indians, wanted independence from the socialist government 600 km away on the plains – this was the reason for all the special visas to get into Bogdagra.
After two and a half hours on the winding road, we started going downhill again, and then Darjeeling came into view as we crossed the ridge. Behind and above it, the peaks of Kangenjunga – the snow lit pink by the late afternoon sun – hung in the air, the valleys (and base of the mountain) invisible beneath the clouds. It was quite, quite beautiful. Peace after the danger; the place of the gods.
The taxi stopped and we rescued our packs; we tipped the driver, since we were appalled that the first driver had taken most of the money when the second had done all the work. As we walked away, I glanced at the tyres that had carried us up the mountain road; they were totally bald; I thanked god that it had not been raining, and that I hadn’t had the foresight to look at the tyres before the journey: it would have been even more frightening. We walked through the town to our hotel; Darjeeling lay along a ridge, with steep series of steps between the roads which ran at different heights. People stared. At the main square, horses were tethered; Sherpas were leading pack mules laden with sacks. The air was thin and cold – we were more than twice as high as Ben Nevis (and this was just the foothills of the Himalayas!). The buildings were wooden and stilted. The smell of smoke hung in the air. The locals were dressed in layers of clothes, held together by string.
Kangenjunga looked down on all this, burning red in the sunset.
This really was the End of the World.