Saturday, 4 January 2014

The insanity of India - Chapter 23

I arrived in Calcutta on March 5th 1994, to the news that my granddad had died. This in itself was a major travesty, but five days later my great aunt died as well to further compound the blow. My great aunt was more like a second gran than an aunt, so it felt like I'd lost two grandparents within five days of each other. Neither death was unexpected to be honest, and both came after long illnesses, but their passing still left me feeling morose.

I wouldn't have had Calcutta, down as a place that I would have chosen to be, to help me deal with their deaths. There was certainly nothing peaceful or chilled out about the streets of the city that was for sure. In fact, it seemed that I'd just arrived in the most chaotic place in the world. A city where poverty and enormous wealth co-existed on the same dirt encrusted streets; a city where painfully skinny men, who looked inches from death, pulled smug looking fat cats around on their rickshaws, and a city where grand colonial architecture stood side by side with families living in cardboard boxes.

Strangely enough, the distraction worked. Rather than sit dwelling on my loss, I was catapulted into an environment and culture that were so totally alien to anything I'd ever witnessed before, that I was left fascinated by the place. Any trepidation that I'd had about going to India had dissipated before nightfall on my first day there.

From the airport I headed to the backpackers area of the city called Sudder Street, which at first glance appeared more than a little unsavoury. To get to my hostel I had to pass by legions of begging families, many of whom were lepers. Their outstretched hands grabbed at my legs as I ran by them. I felt awful, but what could I do?

Once I'd booked into the hostel, I hoisted myself onto the top bunk of my dorm bed, pulled out my Lonely Planet guidebook, and began to make a list of things that I wanted to see. As I flicked through the pages, one section of the book immediately caught my attention. Apparently, if Mother Teresa was in town, it was very possible that you could get to see her, if you headed to her Mission of Charities for the early morning mass around 6 am. Yes, it sounded extremely early, and yes it was a long shot. But Mother Teresa was arguably the most famous woman in the world. I wasn't going to let this one pass me by.

Excited by the prospects of meeting Mother Teresa I jumped from my bunk to inform the nearest person of my intentions. This just so happened to be the Japanese guy in the bunk under mine, who seemed amused by actions, as I hopped from foot to foot and told him of my plans. His English wasn't that great, but by the time I'd finished telling him, I think that he'd agreed to go with me.

Shortly after this, I must have fallen into a late afternoon nap, and I was awoken a few hours later to a most joyous fanfare of noise, emanating from the street. I rushed outside, to witness a procession of brightly painted elephants with strip lights hanging from them in every place possible. Following the elephants was a full scale band, playing a whole host of instruments. On one of the elephants sat a bride and groom, who were adorned in the most beautiful outfits, and were literally dripping in gold.

When I'd established that this wasn't a dream. I stood back and watched as the elephants wandered off into the night. I'd been India initiated within eight hours of being in the country, and I'd spent three of those sleeping. This was going to be an interesting few months.

The next morning I awoke my Japanese friend (Naoki) on the bunk below me and we headed out into the darkness of the Calcutta streets. As we made our way to the Mission of Charities we could barely see a foot in front of us. Just like Phnom Penh, this felt like Victorian England. Only this time it was lepers that emerged from the shadows not amputees.

We weren't entirely sure whether we were going in the right direction or not. Street lighting didn't appear to be too high on the Calcutta local council's manifesto, and the street beggars didn't seem to be overly versed in the mother tongue. It was only by chance that we actually found the place.

The Mission of Charities building was fronted by a large wooden door with a small electronic bell to the right hand side of it.

"Shall we push it?" I asked Naoki, as we stood and stared at the bell. To be honest, I felt more than a little nervous, like a kid playing knock a door run. Naoki, who was a man of few words (English words anyway) gestured that I should.

The door opened much quicker than I expected it to and left me uncomposed. I mean, it's not everyday that you have the possibility to meet Mother Teresa - my thoughts were all over the place. Behind the door stood and aged nun who beckoned me in.

"We've come for the mass," I told her, although she seemed fully aware of our real intentions.

"Follow me," she said, as she headed up a nearby stair case.

I couldn't help notice that there were signs everywhere warning people not to use cameras in the building. This was a good indicator that she might actually be there I thought to myself, as my fingers tightened around the camera in my pocket.

The nun led us to a room that was neither large nor small. Let's put it this way if one of the nuns would have farted everybody would have known about it. I looked around, and noted that beside myself and Naoki there were only two more foreigners in the room. The rest of the room was made up of about 20 nuns.

Twenty minutes into the mass and I was beginning to feel like I'd got out of bed early for no reason. That I'd been both optimistic and naive in thinking that I'd bump into Mother Teresa. This thought was still circulating my mind, when the double doors opened and in walked a very short, hunched, wizened old lady. I couldn't believe it, she was actually here. And what's more she was making her way towards me.

Quite incredibly, the only spare space in the room was right next to me. So that's exactly where she sat. For the next 20 minutes or so until the mass finished I sat with Mother Teresa about an inch from my foot. So close in fact that I spent the whole time daring myself to touch her arse with the end of my toe. A task which I rather proudly, successfully completed.

Once the mass was over Mother Teresa exited the room and everybody followed. Of course, I was itching to get my photo taken with her but I took of all the signs warning me not to. Which is more than I can say for the other couple (American), who showed no shame in whipping out an SLR and nailing Mother Teresa with their flash. This was the queue for Naoki and I to do the same thing. An act which Mother Teresa seemed quite unperturbed by. If the truth be known she seemed to revel in the limelight and even rewarded me with some rosary beads. Which I later passed on to my gran.

As Naoki and I made our way back to the hostel we passed a street that was entirely filled with men and women sat at desks, in office clothes, typing away on ancient typewriters. Literally, just sat there in the street among the beggars, street kids and lepers, typing away as if they were sat in an office. Could this country get any weirder? Well, yes it could, we were off to Varanassi in a few days.

When I arrived in Varanassi on the back of a 10 hour train ride, the last thing that I expected to see on the platform was a large stack of dead bodies. Don't get me wrong, I'd done my research. I knew that Hindus sent their dead to Varanassi to be cremated on the ghats of the River Ganges, I just didn't expect to be confronted by death so early into my stay. Over the next few days I would see dead bodies all over the city, on car roof racks in taxis and even supported on the back of a rickshaw.

So why do they send the bodies to Varanassi? Please let me explain! According to popular Hindu belief, the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara), and the next incarnation is dependent on how the previous life was lived. It is believed that if a person dies or is cremated in Varanassi there is a good chance that the cycle of life and death will be broken. Therefore it is of extreme importance to get dead bodies to Varanassi by any means possible. Often this means that the families of the deceased throw the body onto trains bound for the city, and then run away. This may seem rather bizarre, but those families that manage to pull this off are rewarded by a free cremation for their family member, in a state run incinerator.

Feeling fatigued from the journey and rather queasy from all the death that I'd just witnessed, I booked into a hostel to get some rest before the all out assault on the senses I had planned for the following day.

The next day, I awoke early, washed down a few samosas with a cup of chai, and headed to the river. My progress was slow because cows blocked the roads in every direction. You see, the cow is a sacred animal in India and they've basically got free reign to do whatever they want. Due to the hot temperatures, the city operated at snails pace anyway. Add practically motionless cows into the fray and it all but ground to a halt.

Eventually I made it to the Ganges, where I headed for one of the ghats. The ghats are steps that lead down to the holy river. Most are used for bathing but some are used to cremate the bodies; it was the latter of those two activities that captured my attention. What weirder way to wile away the morning than watching a load of bodies burn on the banks of India's holiest river?

As I took up position on the ghat, I was approached by an Indian guy who filled me in on the details of how the caste system of cremation worked. It went as follows. Those of the lowest caste (untouchables) are cremated lower down the ghat closer to the water, and those of the highest caste (Brahmin) are burnt at the top of the steps. Stranger still, there are eight classes of people who are not deemed worthy of cremation, these include lepers, sadhus (holy men), pregnant women, children, and those bitten by a cobra. These bodies are bound in cloth, weighted down, and thrown into the river. The same river where locals wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth. With hygiene levels like that I was surprised that anyone in Varanassi was alive at all.

I stood and watched in amazement as a cremation took place but a few yards in front of me. Strangely enough I felt quite at ease observing death at such close quarters. It was as if I was confronting my own mortality. That I'd experienced two major losses less than a week earlier made it feel even more poignant. I was hypnotised by the lashing flames, as they erased a physical being from this life. I was only brought back into this life myself by a loud cracking noise that sounded like gunfire. I was later told that this was the skull exploding. Add to this that human ashes were raining down into my hair, and in retrospect I'm surprised that I wasn't more freaked out than I was.

After what I'd just witnessed I assumed that nothing would ever shock me again. How wrong I was! Not two minutes later my attention was diverted to two dogs on the periphery of my vision. The dogs, which I took to be wild, were having a good old tug of war with what looked like a human hand. And that's because it was in fact, a human hand. I was later informed that the hands and feet are the toughest skin on the body and therefore they are the last parts to burn. Often they just fall off and land n the ashes. To the local starving dogs they are considered a treat worth fighting over.

Eating my lunch a few hours later felt a little odd after what I'd just experienced. I was only thankful that I'd gone vegetarian. The image of a human hand was still firmly in my mind as I battled to eat my vegetable curry.

The following morning I was up at the crack of dawn, and headed down to the river, along with three Kiwis I'd met in the guesthouse. Here we negotiated a price with a local boatman, who then took us into the middle of the river to observe the beautiful sunrise. For the last time in this book, I'll let you know that I clicked my mental camera (I'm sure you sick of hearing this already). Let me just say that if I told you how many times this camera was clicked in India, I'd most likely bore the pants off you.

As our captain rowed us down river, I spent a glorious half hour observing life on the ghats. It was most incredible, each ghat could tell a thousand stories. So many lives unfolding in such a small space. The captain homed in on our conversation about how it was possible for people to bathe in the river without dying of some water borne disease. This was the queue for him to show us, what I imagined to be his well rehearsed party trick. Taking a cup from the bottom of his boat he scooped it into the river and drank a whole cup of filthy Ganges water. When he finished it, he gave us a big smile and offered us some. We politely declined.

Quite incredibly, we saw many dolphins in the river. Until that day, I'd never realised that dolphins even lived in rivers, never mind a river as polluted as the Ganges at Varanassi.

I'd been in India for only a few weeks but it was time for me to head to Nepal. I'd come back to India once I'd been trekking in the Himalayas a few weeks later, but for now it was time to don my hiking boots and check out my fitness level. The Kiwis decided to join me as far as Kathmandu.

We had to get up ridiculously early to get the bus to Kathmandu, and given that I'm not a morning person, I wasn't in the best of moods. The guesthouse owner's kid was about to find out just how bad my mood was. The Kiwis were up before me and told me that they'd wait in the street for me while I gathered my stuff together. The guesthouse owner's kid decided that this would be a good time to try and extract baksheesh (tip) from me. The little urchin locked the door and refused to open it, instead calling out "baksheesh, baksheesh." After 30 seconds of this little charade, I shouted "baksheesh, baksheesh, I'll give you the back of hand you little fucker." I then carried out my threat. It didn't feel great slapping a 10 year old kid, but he'd definitely asked for it . I let myself out.

My lateness meant that we had to dart for the bus at record pace. By the time we got to the station it was completely full. The driver's assistant beckoned us onto the roof, where a large group of people had already amassed. The Kiwis thought better of it, but I took my chances because it looked slightly more comfortable than the actual bus.

My arrival on the roof was met with great amusement by the rest of the people up there, who were already settling in and having a little tea party. I was invited to join them, and duly agreed. I was never going to say no to an opportunity like that. By the time the bus had reached the outskirts of the city, I was feeling quite relaxed in my new environment. The bus journey was going to take around eight hours to the border town of Sunauli, so I had plenty of time to get to know my new bus roof mates.

Not long into the journey, and I was offered a blast on a joint. Without a pause for thought I grabbed it and took a puff. Wow! It was strong. Before I knew it I was giggling like an 11 year old girl. This wouldn't have been a problem normally but this was far from a normal situation. I was sat on the top of a fast moving bus hurtling through the middle of India. And things were about to get worse.

If I'd been warned that our route was going to be littered with low hanging telephone wires, that would have undoubtedly garroted me, I probably would have opted for a place inside the bus. As it was, I was given a fraction of a millisecond to duck before one of the aforementioned wires whistled over my head. Approximately two minutes later it happened again, and then again, and again for the next few hours. By which time I'd chosen to lie flat on my stomach, and had started praying to Allah.
Given the speed that our bus was travelling it was a miracle that we reached Sunauli
, it was an even bigger miracle that I arrived there with my head intact. This was our change over point. Here we'd have to go through border control and catch a different bus to Kathmandu.

My legs were trembling as I climbed down the ladder from the roof of the bus. I would have probably refused to come down at all if I hadn't have needed to shit so bad. In my stoned state I was guided to a toilet, which I can safely say is still to this day, the worst toilet that I've ever encountered.

The bamboo toilet block was balanced precariously on the edge of a small ravine. At least that's what it felt like to my stoned mind. Slowly I edged forward, half frozen by fear but driven by my desperation to shed my load. Once I'd viewed the interior of the toilet, I wished that I'd never bothered. Basically it was a hole in the ground which was covered with bamboo to spare the shitting person from the sights below them. Unfortunately the bamboo didn't help to disguise the smell.

All I wanted to do was drop my load and then get out of there as fast as possible, but somehow it wasn't happening. Perhaps the fear, or the fact that I was so stoned, was taking its toll on my bowel movement. As I squatted there trying to force it out I suddenly became aware of some strange noises beneath me. A half grunting, half sniffing kind of noise. But what the fuck could it be? Well, I'll tell you! Not more than two feet below me, was a pig stood on its haunches, trying to eat the excrement from my butt hole. The sight of which, was enough to open up my bowels. As my load exited my body, the pig ate away for all he was worth. At that moment I truly understood the expression "happy as a pig in shit."

I was out of there in no time, and back on the roof of the bus to collect my possessions, which I'd forgotten in my haste to relieve myself. Five minutes later (as the bus disappeared into the distance) I realised that I'd left my camera on the roof (complete with photos of me and Mother Teresa). FUCK! FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!

Upon seeing my face, the Kiwis asked me if I was OK. "You're looking a little pale bro, is everything alright?" To which I replied, "It's been a bad day. I've been locked in the guesthouse by a kid, almost garroted by telephone wires, rimmed by a pig, and now I've gone and lost one of the most precious things I've every owned."

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