18 February 2020

A Train of Thought

Bundi to Udaipur, Wednesday 18 December 2019

  • The platform signs at Bundi Railway Station are useless. They don’t say which train’s arriving; they just exhort passengers to travel with the correct ticket. When a train arrives at approximately the right time, I have to assume it’s mine. At least it has a coach labelled S1, and I find seat 44; I also find it’s occupied by a supine shrouded figure that could just as easily be a corpse as someone sleeping. The coach is mostly empty, though, so I take the seat opposite and eventually work out how to drop the second-tier seat so I can sit upright.
  • Twenty to thirty minutes after departure, I watch an Egyptian vulture circling low over the sere, thorny landscape of Rajasthan. A woman in saffron tends a small flock of goats.
  • The conductor’s a middle-aged woman. She consults her list and, as I open the ticket on my phone, she pre-empts me and says, ‘Peter?’ A yes from me is good enough for her. No need to produce my passport. It’s nice to be trusted.
  • Fields edged with hedgerows of Euphorbia. I notice a newly-planted row and think Euphorbia would make an excellent hedge. Anything willing to force through a Euphorbia hedge would deserve the rewards on the other side.
  • Mandalgarh arrives after an hour.
  • Looking out at this hard land, I realise I love waste lands and places where human life is marginal. I’m almost overwhelmed by a sense of the significance of these moments in making up my life; the feeling almost breaks my heart. Is this wabi sabi?
  • By the railway lines, three structures that look like graves, each with two headstones. To believe that this is what they are would be unbearable.
  • Many dead animals along the embankments. A dog pulls at the intestines of a bloated cow; the front of a calf has been reduced to a red-and-white skeleton and the dark skin has shrivelled over the back half of the animal.
  • At Bassi, a lunch stop. Someone in the coach is farting brazenly. Fortunately, I’m far enough away to be unaffected.
  • The train leaves Bassi at 4.10 pm, and already the strength has started to go from the sun. 
  • Shadows lengthen and the first cold creeps in through the window. Someone has lit a smoky fire on the edge of a field. I have always been travelling; I am travelling forever.
  • Coal yards near Chittorgarh — the huge piles absorb light like black holes, collapsed stars, the ruins of existence. Behind the yards rises a huge, filthy, smoking industrial plant: Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills reified.
  • At Chittorgarh, kids reel invisible string that binds them to sky-high skittering kites as choking smoke drifts along between the tracks and the road and men drag their wheelie bags along the platform as they talk to their phones. The hacked-off limbs of trees lie where they’ve fallen, waiting to be turned into fuel to create more smoke and maybe a little heat. Where there’s smoke there’s fire — but, in India, not always.
  • Egrets, crows, Peafowl, Brahminy starlings, Red-vented bulbuls, Greenshanks, Black-winged stilts, Red-wattled lapwings, the Egyptian vulture, pigeons, doves, drongos, swifts cutting the air, a pied starling.
  • A small herd of sleek, healthy Nilgai, all females except for one bull. More Nilgai appear as the train speeds past.
  • A flock of parakeets, peppermint-green in the evening sun.
  • Old men wearing white lungis, last century’s tweed sports jackets, and brilliant vermillion turbans.
  • At a quarter to six, the sun is a huge orange disc burning on the horizon.
  • The chimneys of a brickworks pour filthy black smoke into the sky.

I’d enjoyed most of the train journey. The coach had been close to empty, with just a handful of other passengers, and I’d spent most of the time gazing out the window, letting my thoughts and feelings drift where they liked, occasionally scribbling notes and impressions and observations. After dark, though, I could see almost nothing except the inside of the coach, and although sleeper-class coaches on Indian trains can be … let's say, interesting, the novelty wears off quickly. I was keen to get to Udaipur.
The manager of the Nandini guest house showed me my room, explained the hot water system, and said he’d come back with some warmer bedding, a towel, soap, and a toilet roll.
   ‘I don’t need a toilet roll.’
   He grinned and said, ‘Like an Indian.’
   I told him I’d been to India four times and he looked pleased. He came back shortly after with a towel, soap, a big thick fluffy blanket, and a small sheet-like thing he called a comforter. I couldn’t imagine it providing much comfort of any sort, but I appreciated the thought. I settled in quickly and walked up the road to the Lotus Café for an excellent navratan korma. I liked Udaipur already.

Udaipur, Thursday 19 December 2019

I had no plans for the day other than walking around, deciding where to go next, looking for birds — I hoped I’d be able to find and photograph the Bank mynas — and spending some time on the roof of the Nandini catching up on transcribing handwritten notes. I had some emailing to take care of, too, and I was disappointed that I’d been thinking too much about a job offer I’d just received and whether I’d be able to move back into the place where I’d been living for the last twenty years. Easy communication is a curse as well as a blessing, and perhaps one of the reasons the great travellers of last century were great was because they were so often completely cut off and had no choice but to immerse themselves completely in the place and culture in which they were travelling. Even Matthiessen, on his journey with Schaller to the Crystal Mountain, the land of the Snow Leopard, struggled at times to be fully present, to avoid dwelling on the relationships he’d left behind. Could he have written The Snow Leopard if he’d had an Internet connection — if not the whole time, at least frequently? Maybe he’d have written these very thoughts. I think, though, that with his stronger will than mine, his more practised discipline, his greater experience of the risk of letting the outside world interfere, he’d have travelled without the temptations of the modern ‘adventurer’: a satellite phone and a laptop.
   But at least I was writing by hand, which is a form of discipline different from that practised now, if at all, by most travellers. Most, I guess, rely on social media — facebook and Instagram — to share their experiences and as a personal record. As a means of sharing, that has important advantages. It’s quick and easy and can be not just up-to-date but up-to-the-minute. I want to suggest a disadvantage is that the social media approach lacks depth, but that’s not true: being brief is not the same as being shallow, and something concise can also be profound. It just takes effort.
On the road outside the Edelweiss, a young blonde female tourist has been caught in a conversation with a young Indian man leaning on his dusty motorbike. I wonder how long it will take her to get away — but now he leads her away down the road. She has a guide, whether she wanted one or not, and if I see her in a few hours still being led around by the same man, I won’t be surprised. To be a foreign woman in India has difficulties I don’t face — I know this from extensive listening to, and sometimes travelling briefly with, foreign women travelling in India; to be young, foreign, female, alone, and blonde must require a confidence and strength of will I can hardly imagine.
I returned to the Edelweiss in the afternoon for a warmed slice of truly excellent apple-and-cinnamon tart and another flat white that, unusually, tasted slightly like real coffee. The only other customer was a tall, lean Indian man in a black skivvy and tight blue jeans; he had fashionable stubble and sunglasses and appeared to be working on some kind of notes in a large paper pad, at least when he wasn’t studying his phone. He looked like an Indian version of Jeff Goldblum. Later, a foreign family came in. The father, in his fashionable fedora, bossed around his wife and two pre-teen daughters. They sat at the far end of the bench seating on the back wall and spent some time carefully deciding on a late lunch. I wondered what travelling as a family, particularly with two young daughters, would be like. Comments from friends, as well as from locals and other travellers, had encouraged me to think about the advantages and disadvantages of travelling alone, and I’d realised that a major advantage was the freedom to do exactly what I was doing — writing alone for long periods and not seeing the famous sights, which I mostly had no desire to see. That, too, was in contrast to the family now sharing the bench seat. From their accents, I guessed they were British. The parents kept browsing through a very new-looking and necessarily huge copy of the Lonely Planet India guidebook, and snippets of conversation (unintentionally overheard ) suggested they were deciding what to visit before closing time. The daughters played little part in the decision-making but appeared relaxed and happy to inspect their phones.
Despite my reservations about Udaipur’s extreme tourist-focus, I have to admit it’s comfortable here. Good food at reasonable prices is readily available; most cafés are comfortable for writing for long periods; most guest houses, including the Nandini, have rooftops where it’s possible to relax, to write, or to do nothing except sit and pay attention to being here, in Udaipur, in Rajasthan, in India, with Christmas approaching and the future uncertain. How did I end up here? The decision had been mine — I’d kept thinking about India and eventually made up my mind to return, probably for the final time — but as I sat in the glare of the afternoon sun on the rooftop of the Nandini, trying to understand how I’d arrived at that moment in those circumstances, nothing made any sense. Chatwin used that feeling for the title of his book, What Am I Doing Here?, and any traveller who takes the time to reflect (and if they don’t, are they really a traveller?) must surely have moments when they feel the same sense of disorientation, of strangeness, of feeling this is all happening to someone who isn’t entirely me.
   Tomorrow I book a bus ticket for Bhuj, leaving me two whole days in Udaipur. If I can get up early enough, I’ll cross the bridge to see if the Bank mynas are back. When I looked for them this morning, I saw no sign. So far, this has been my only disappointment about Udaipur.

These are excerpts from more extensive notes and writings. They're not intended to be a comprehensive record, but I hope they convey some reasonable impressions of some aspects of the journey.

1.  Udaipur's famous for many things, but Lake Pichola must be near the top of the list.
2.  On my previous train journey from Delhi to Bharatpur, the view from the window was far more restricted.
3. At Bundi these three rode past on a single motorbike (this is not uncommon and I've seen more). I grinned and they turned and came back, keen for a photo.
4.  Some train journeys are just too short.

Photos and original text © 2019 Pete McGregor