Miss Kerry? Phone call! Please follow.”
Phone call? It’s November. I’m alternately blotting sweat and sipping a chilled Kingfisher on a rooftop terrace four storeys above the Ganges, India’s holiest river, in Varanasi – India’s holiest city. Those lucky enough to die here, where Lord Shiva married, or to be cremated alongside the Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges), revered as a living goddess, are believed to break free of the endless cycle of reincarnation. Peace is theirs.
Fireworks explode overhead. It is the first night of Diwali, the year’s holiest celebration for India’s 850 million Hindus – a good number of whom are now packed excitedly into wooden boats drifting through floating candle offerings and marigold garlands on the Ganges. Sanskrit mantras punctuated by the rattling of conch shells and bells and the beating of drums spiral up from one of Varanasi’s 30 legendary ghats, each a series of stone steps sweeping down to the water’s edge. My friend and fellow traveller, Jill, looks impressed at my summons by the Dolphin Restaurant’s head waiter, but is more interested in eating her freshly baked naan while it’s hot.
“Hello?” “Kerry! Welcome to India! I am Rafiq! I meet your train in Agra in four days?” Oh, blessed Google. Before leaving Canada, we hired Rafiq online to be our driver for the second half of this six-week India odyssey. The clincher? An English couple’s Trip Advisor testimonial, praising Rafiq’s fierce belief in safety – a rare attribute in a country where car fatalities are the major cause of death.
For the first half of our passage through India, we had trekked the remote Himalayas of Sikkim (India’s northern state, tucked between Bhutan and Nepal) with a guide, four porters and five dzos (a cow-yak hybrid), the latter’s tinkling bells and the occasional dzo-boy’s call the only sounds. Travelling then by taxi, we journeyed from the sedate Himalayan hill station of Darjeeling down to India’s great plains, then on by overnight train to arrive here in Varanasi, a festival-mad city of crumbling pastel palaces, temples and stone gateways that is half movie set, half watercolour dream – an Alice-sliding-down-the-rabbit’s-hole experience. On a wild taxi ride from train station to hotel, the driver wove through sacred cows, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, pedicabs and pony-drawn two-wheeled tongas, taking dead aim at oncoming large trucks, hand on the horn, eyes locked with those of other drivers in a game of chicken. After the peace of the Himalayas, we landed feet first in the real India, where driving is a blood sport.
But tonight, we will scrape sacred cow doo and marigold petals off our sandals and fall asleep instantly and deeply, lulled by the city’s blaring mantras – broadcast on scratchy sound systems – and the knowledge that soon, after just one more overnight train, to Agra, Rafiq will be safely in the driver’s seat. In the winding lanes below, the dead, wrapped in gold cloth, will be carried through the night by bereaved sons to the ghats – to be released by fire and the Ganges’ divine waters. And at dawn, we will be woken by the thump of golden monkeys leaping onto the roof from a neighbouring building while, below, the devout already face the morning. Standing chest deep in the polluted Ganges, sipping the holy waters from cupped hands, they will chant the Gayatri to the sun god: Lord, we behold your light that fills the three worlds; and pray for your radiance to illumine our minds.
Four nights later, we’re waiting in MGS station for the night train to Agra and Rafiq. It is the usual scene: smartly kitted Indian soldiers rub shoulders with near-naked holy sadhus; sacred cows and beggars scrounge among the crowd; plump, prosperous matrons trail gold-edged saris past barefoot porters, whose dhotis are gathered between poverty-thin legs, bowed under the weight of bulging suitcases. Legless men in shabby western suits push alongside on trolleys half the size of skateboards; big-eyed shoeshine boys dog us, despite our open-toed sandals. We wait anxiously on Platform 3 as instructed. Train 3237 arrives on Platform 6.
The delight of riding an Indian train is its passing parade: the 14 million souls who board and depart daily. To take a train, as Lonely Planet says, is to ride India’s bloodstream. Rail regulations detail five pages of those eligible for fare discounts: from circus performers and cancer patients who use an ostomy bag to midwives, widows of martyrs, those with non-infectious leprosy, boy scouts in uniform and vegetable vendors earning less than $10 a month. Child recipients of National Bravery Awards travel free in second-sleeper class. A corpse is charged the parcel rate. With luck (uncertainty is a given), chai wallahs will scurry through the cars, offering hot tea, while porters ferry sheets, pillows and blankets to the 2AC berths (air-conditioned cars with two-tiered beds) favoured by tourists.
What is not a delight is the drabness of the train. Thanks to The Darjeeling Limited, that quirky 2007 Cannes festival-winner directed by Wes Anderson, a new generation of movie-goers believes Indian trains are sheathed in hand-painted drawings of elephants and temples, while inside, swaying glass chandeliers tinkle in exquisite dining rooms and private compartments – plump with Rajasthan silk cushions and enormous windows – overlook India rolling past. In the real India, only trucks are lovingly hand-painted (Fox hired Rajasthani truck painters to embellish its movie’s train) and real Indian train windows are infamous for their near-opaque haze. Sightseers may as well fly at 30,000 feet or take a night train.
“Accept no food on the train from strangers!” advised our Varanasi hotel clerk, waggling his head as we checked out. “Even kindly seeming people may drug you and steal your goods.” And so, armed with bananas and Pure Love biscuits (but alas, no cable with which to chain our luggage) we lie back in the dark in berths 41 and 42, legs bent as if we are seated, suitcases tucked under our calves against would-be thieves. In the upper berth, as the manual ceiling fan whips dangerously close to Jill’s face, the large hands of two heavily made-up hijras (India’s third (blank) – eunuch and transvestite entertainers who dress in women’s clothing) fling open the compartment curtain to give a Hindi “Oo-la-la!” at our pale faces, then bat their eyelashes before disappearing. It’s all very Some Like It Hot. At 3 a.m., a boisterous Thai tour group boards.
Seventeen hours later, the train arrives two hours late. Rumpled and sticky, we exit Agra Cantt station, trailing other passengers, a downloaded photo of Rafiq’s moustached face in hand. More waggling heads of a mass of eager men thrust forward. “Yes, yes, this is the only door, Madam!” “Your driver must be a scoundrel, madam!” “He is not coming, madam!” “Here is my car!” My god! We should have gotten Rafiq’s cellphone number . . . But he does have our photo . . . did he leave because the train was late? . . . Has he gone to the platform? A small, clean-shaven man smiles quietly off to one side. He wears a crisp, short-sleeved blue shirt and dark slacks. “Rafiq?” asks Jill. “But where is your moustache?” A bigger, shy smile. “I have shaved it off just now to look younger.” We like Rafiq instantly for his confession.
“Chalo? – Let’s go?” Rafiq nods to a distinctive, boxy white sedan ensconced in the shade. The Ambassador! Traditional favourite of maharajas and prime ministers, India’s classic national car is now our first choice, too. Styled on the U.K.’s Oxford Morris but built in India, the spacious air-conditioned Amby is bound to draw approving glances on our grand tour.
And so it does, as, in a rush of colour, India comes at us head-on over the Ambassador’s pure retro dashboard. Often unnerving, sometimes truly frightening, it is thrilling, shocking, magical and unforgettable as we fly past buses, trucks, loping camels and motorcycles with entire families piled on: rickshaws, women carrying bricks on their elegant heads, uniformed school kids waving wildly, the occasional elephant, sadhus and more than one wedding, complete with groom on horseback and brass band. Sheep flow around us; bands of monkeys clamber over the Ambassador’s hood as the days fly by.
By the end of week one, the traveller’s inevitable frustrations with India have fallen away as Rafiq transports us from Agra into India’s great northern state: Rajasthan. This is the magical India that foreigners imagine. Women in long swirling ghagharas (skirts) of burnt orange and proud, mustachioed and turbaned men; fairytale palaces and walled forts; half of India’s 500,000 camels, led by tribal people on the move. We observe that caste matters here and that men are still kings in this land of kings, where to speak of a question of honour is to speak of “an issue of moustache.”
Like most first-time travellers in India, we trace a route through Rajasthan’s four ancient cities, each besotted with one colour: bubblegum-pink Jaipur, painted to please the visiting Prince of Wales in 1876; dazzling, marble-white Udaipur; hyacinth-blue Jodhpur; and, at the desert’s edge, shimmering, golden-walled Jaisalmer, a 12th-century storybook sandcastle illustration. And always, with wheels instead of rails, we are independent, free of what-time-does-the-train-leave-and-from-which-track-and-will-there-be-food-on-board? Our worries, that we’d be at the mercy of a self-serving driver intent on delivering us to his cousin’s endless shops, fall away. Instead, Rafiq takes us home to his family for dinner in Udaipur. He becomes a friend but remains professional. He finds his own accommodation and meals. And each morning the newly washed Ambassador awaits its rumpled Canadian passengers, with Rafiq, cheerful in a freshly ironed cotton shirt and slacks, standing beside it, ready to answer the day’s endless stream of questions. We tour forts and palaces as he parks in the shade, water bottles readied for our return. He becomes our informal cultural guide, explaining life as a Muslim in 90 per cent Hindu India, revealing how corruption and kickbacks work, advising when to say “No” to professional beggars versus “Yes” to the truly poor and how to discourage India’s legions of street-boy vendors with a mere click of the tongue, eyes forward.
“Incredible, India?” asks Rafiq, leaning forward intently, brows knit, from the right-side driver’s seat (Britain’s legacy) as an 18-wheeler grazes past. The man drives like an aerobatic pilot. Subtle, confident movements of the wheel. Proudly: “This is the real India – you cannot see India from the train or a plane.”
Jill rides shotgun today. I’m in the back, lulled by the Ambassador’s diesel-engine thrum and the pink tassel swaying from the rear-view mirror, Lonely Planet’s Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra open in my lap. Rajasthan’s history reads like a fairytale. The Rajputs’ bravery and sense of honour were unparalleled. Theirs was a culture of chivalry – part medieval European knights, part Japanese samurais. Rajput warriors fought centuries of invaders against all odds. When no hope was left, honour demanded that jauhar (mass suicide) take place. “Women and children . . . immolated themselves on a huge funeral pyre while the men donned saffron robes and rode out to confront the enemy and certain death.” Medieval foreshadowing of 21st-century driving in India?
On the road from Agra to Pushkar, we witness our first accident when a car clips an oncoming cyclist. A few miles on, we pass two totalled cars. Rafiq, who trained 14 years ago with an Anglo-American company that stressed safety, angrily explains why India has such carnage on its roads. “People do not take responsibility!” – including the government. Anything that can move is allowed on any Indian road. At night, trucks bear down on unlit camel carts, bikes and tractors.
“Look! They are not licensed, they have no lights, no insurance.” Rafiq gestures at a tiny local “bus” precariously stuffed with waving local women. “But if I hit a peacock, our national bird, I am in trouble.” Glum silence. Turning onto a short stretch of six-lane freeway, we’re puzzled by a large sign – “Please do not drive in the wrong direction” – until we look ahead to see a massive truck bearing down on us – on our side of the divided freeway. The old adage “Don’t drive in countries that believe in reincarnation” takes on a new urgency. “They can’t read,” shrugs Rafiq, adeptly curving onto the shoulder with seconds to spare.
Given that Rajasthan is a harsh land with a harsher climate, we couldn’t have picked a better time to journey here. The monsoons are over; daytime is hot but not unbearable, the desert nights cool but not yet cold; and India is everything we imagined, and more. In tiny, holy “pure-veg” Pushkar (the vegetarian population of 14,000 lives without eggs, meat or alcohol), we are amongst the 200,000 people and 50,000 camels converging once a year for Kartika, the most sacred Hindu lunar month. Pilgrims bathe by moonlight; tribal traders haggle over the length of a camel’s eyelashes. Before dawn, at their campgrounds, shy girls carrying livestock fodder on their heads glance at two sleepy tourists; turbaned traders, still wrapped in brown-and-grey blankets against the cold, brew tea, stroking their impressive moustaches. Midday, we join the devoted crush to perform puja (prayers) at India’s only temple to Brahman. Ironically, of the many Hindu gods, Brahman the Creator is rarely worshipped. We emerge with red-powder tikkas on our foreheads.
Just when Jill and I think we can’t take any more crowds, we find ourselves two days’ travel away from the nearest city in a remote country village, where we join two Parisians on a magical, starlit adventure. We have already crossed the Aravelli Hills-, one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, which splits east and west Rajasthan. We are in search of Narlai, a film location in The Darjeeling Limited where Owen Wilson and his celluloid brothers climb a dome-shaped granite bluff topped by a life-size white-elephant statue. When we locate the tiny village, notable for its free-running, startlingly hairy black pigs, it looks dodgy. But we are soon booked into Number 16, the same room Mick Jagger chose in 2006 at Rawla Narlai, a 17th-century hunting lodge gifted to the Maharaja of Jodhpur – and walled off from the piggies. The elegant manager, a relative of India’s royal family, tells us that the Darjeeling cast and crew celebrated Christmas here when the film wrapped. “It can be a slow time for travel – and I was so pleased to see how you celebrate Christmas!”
Later that night, the Parisians, Jill and I travel by creaking oxcart – guided by turbaned Rajputs from the warrior caste, swinging oil-lit lamps – to an ancient, vast, sunken, rectangular stone well that is easily the size of an Olympic swimming pool but only half full, its perimeter and interior steps lined with flickering ghee candles. Seated at one end, we dine on thali – a series of deliciously spiced dishes from royal recipes and served in round bowls on a silver tray – while reclining on silk cushions strewn with flower petals. A distant husky voice sings to the gods; a bonfire crackles up to the starry night. Paris and Vancouver seem very far away.
Two days’ drive beyond Narlai, and we are sidestepping open sewage running along the backstreets of Jaisalmer when a man with no legs, no arms, his torso wrapped in thick leather, rolls past on his side, his assistant nudging an alms pot before him. “You must give to this man. He is truly a holy person,” calls a shopkeeper, tucking his own rupees into the pot.
This is India: exquisite carved-sandstone “lace” havellis (mansions); a frail grandmother rushing to stop traffic for jaywalking tourists in hopes of a few rupees; white-marble palaces floating on lakes; milky-marble Jain temples with naked monks; dalits, despite their new self-description as India’s “oppressed,” still trapped by their Untouchables status, doing India’s dirty work; beautiful brides covered in bangles and bare-wristed widows abandoned by society and family, barely covered by thin, white-cotton saris. India’s middle class may be growing, but more than one third still toil for a dollar a day. Tourists book luxurious rail journeys on board the Palace on Wheels but haggle over a few rupees with homeless taxi wallahs who have no place to sleep except their vehicles.
An Indian friend in Canada advised we travel as Indians do: “Let India wash over you and take in what you can.” It seems to work. We feel oddly not foreign in this country of 1.13 billion, where the common Sanskrit greeting of deep respect – namasté, I bow to the divine in you – hands folded in prayer, transcends the confusion of 2,000 ethnic groups speaking 1,652 languages and dialects.
By week two, our days have settled into a relaxed routine. We explore each destination for two to four days, yet don’t feel glued at the hip to Rafiq, who is happily only a cellphone call away if needed. Local touts offering postcards, puppets and fabric look surprised, laugh and stop badgering when we wave them away with Lapka! – a local term for a “tourist catcher” that Rafiq has taught us. We love our road days in the Ambassador. An easy four- to six-hour drive includes stops for lunch, tea breaks and such architectural wonders as Kumbalgarh, the remote 15th-century fort with walls long enough to enclose 360 temples and wide enough for eight horses to ride abreast along its top.
We are comfortable travelling in silence, but sometimes Rafiq tells us a story. It could be the tale of Rajasthan’s fierce bandit queen-turned-politician Poolan Devi, or Rafiq’s own romance – how he fell in love with the photo of a beautiful young woman not knowing she was deaf and mute, and how it took four years to convince both families the marriage could work. Sometimes Rafiq sings along with a CD. He wanted to be a singer, but when his father died young, fate made Rafiq a driver, though a driver with ambition. After a decade at the wheel for many of India’s big tourism companies, he now has his own business, “for my sons.”
It is our last night. Jaisalmer, less than 100 km from the Pakistan border, is the end of the road for us. Jill and I fly to Delhi tomorrow. A sunset camel ride at the nearby Sam sand dunes is touristy but offers a glimpse of Sahara-like desert. Now it is evening. The Ambassador’s headlights pick up scrubby thorn trees, goats and herdsmen blurring past. Rafiq tips back his head and begins to sing the Bollywood love song we’ve adopted as our driving theme song: Dil kah raha hai tus se yu rishta jod loo . . . My heart tells me that I make a relationship with you . . . the real India.