We are only an hour into this overnight train journey and he has not shifted his gaze. His eyes are a forceful shade of brown and they drill into me. I meet and hold his gaze for a minute or so and wait for him to stop staring.
He does not look away.
It is 11pm and even though my iPod battery is dead, I decide to plug in my headphones. I look up to check if he is still staring and watch as he moves to the opposite end of his seat to get a better view of me. I’m not doing anything particularly interesting and I’m not particularly interesting to look at, but in the cultural fabric of India I appear as a novelty. I am a white female travelling with another white female and we are unaccompanied by a man.
Tapping the screen of my iPod and pushing my headphones into my ears as far as possible are the only tactics I can think to employ that will get me out of this staring contest. It is an involuntary contest where regardless of social and economic status, in this society my gender restricts me from asking him to stop.
I decide I should try to get comfortable. My travel buddy and one of my closest allies sits opposite me and wraps her scarf around her head, ensuring it covers her chest and shoulders. I cross my long legs in this hot, tiny berth and feel them begin to stick to the blue leather seats. I think back to the other places I have visited, both in Australia and overseas, and start going over in my mind what I had read about India before I left. I had two narrow ideas of what I thought the country would be like:
1) The typical western idea of a spiritual, colourful place where I would have a Beatles type experience of self-exploration, resulting in the discovery of inner peace; and
2) The notion of the ‘real’ India, where entire families live under tarps, groups of young boys set up makeshift cricket fields near railway lines, and where the lives of cows are considered something more than a piece of prime beef.
Number two was what I had wanted to see during my time in India. At that time in my life, my daily grind consisted of a grey government job where I searched everywhere for a hint of colour or difference. I would find myself looking for enjoyment in small things, like the piece of dried gum stuck to the corner of my 6.43am train seat, or appreciating the brown, dusty remnants of my morning cappuccino on my shirt; I would look for these things and feel thrilled when I found them, because for an instant they distracted me from the banality of my existence.
Yet in the late night heat in this overnight Indian sleeper train, I find that I crave that banality. I had set myself up with certain expectations of India, and so far, I had not been disappointed.
What I find disappointing is my level of discomfort when these expectations are met. I wanted to see the country for all that it is; its differences, layers, beauties and dark places. But seeing it now, I don’t know how to cope. How do you turn away the skeletons posing as children that beg you for money? There is no chapter in the India Lonely Planet travel guide called ‘How to cope with the feelings associated with being stared at by a stranger for six straight hours’ or a travel blog titled ‘What to do when there is an overbearing scent of shit from the toilet on your overnight train.’
I can’t deny the western lens I am looking through at this point, and start to feel shame. I peer through the barred windows of the train trying to find resolution, but all I see is darkness. Right now, there is no light on these tracks, and while the metal bars cool my fingertips, the heat of his gaze still burns.
It is 11.09pm.
It is 28 degrees.
And it is India.
I try to console myself with the words of one of our taxi drivers. In an attempt to make us feel better about darting through the chaotic traffic, he turned to us, let go of the wheel and exclaimed, ‘It’s okay! It’s India!’
It’s okay, I say to myself. It’s okay because it’s India.
I sink further into my seat and close my eyes because there is tomorrow, and tomorrow will bring the light.
I want to kill her.
No. I am ACTUALLY going to kill her.
Standing on the corner of an unnamed street and unnamed passageway, I find myself wanting to rip the phone out of her hand and throw it into the muddy puddles that swamp our ankles.
‘I just want to know where we are,’ she says in almost a whisper. I want to tell her that no matter how much she flicks through Google maps she is never going to figure out where the hell we are.
I can’t work out if her voice is full of disappointment or disbelief when she says, ‘I can’t understand how you don’t want to know too.’
Normally I would say nothing. I would smile with enthusiasm and say ‘Yes friend, you are right. I should want to learn and understand ALL of the things, just like you do!’
But normally it is daylight. Normally we have only been ripped off a couple of times and normally, we haven’t just been followed and harassed by a group of men.
I have to remind myself that we aren’t in our ‘normal’ though; we aren’t even in what has become our normal in India. We are in Varanasi.
Varanasi is home to the River Ganges, a sacred river that flows right through its centre and into Bangladesh.
I had imagined the river to be the city’s heart, beating and pulsing, its body supported by its people bathing and praying in it.
I imagined fire from the Ghats burning the dead bodies as loved ones watched on, finding serenity in the heat and smoke that would carry their souls to the next place.
But when we arrive in Varanasi there is no serenity. When we enter the city, we encounter a motorcycle accident where the individual’s body parts are dodged by our driver like obstacles on a car racing game. From our balcony we can see the River Ganges overflow and spill into Ghats, just one repercussion of recent fatal floods in India’s north.
And amongst this is us, standing a metre away from each other. We are lost, frustrated and feeling completely alone. My friend has had enough of keeping herself on guard 24/7 and I have had enough of caring. I know that I should care, considering we have known each other since primary school, but travelling together is actually something for new for us. We have been tested several times throughout this trip and today, we’ve reached our threshold. She is still waiting for an answer, seeking confirmation that we are on the same page but I just don’t have it in me. I go to open my mouth to find a way to explain my anger when a little girl approaches and tugs at my friend’s dress.
The little girl smiles and puts some coins in my friend’s hand. She then points to a dark passageway behind us and a shopfront that stands directly opposite.
We have no idea what’s in the passageway, but the little girl keeps smiling and skipping back and forth between the shopfront and us. She intermittently darts up the passageway and returns with more coins to hand to us. In a place that is burdened by poverty we wonder, where is she getting these coins? And what are they for?
Suddenly from behind us we hear clanging and chanting. The sound gets louder as it gets closer and through flickers of candlelight we start to see the source.
Six men emerge from the darkness carrying a stretcher lined with flowers, gifts, and coins. On the stretcher lies the body of an elderly woman which is covered by a white see-through sheath. Her head is exposed to the light and soft rain and we watch it loll from side to side with every step the men take. They bounce past us and smile, singing as they carry the dead corpse of their mother, grandmother, or sister safely into the next life.
Neither of us has seen a funeral like this before. Where are the tears and the black suits? The distant relatives gripping rosary beads as they sob to songs of sadness and loss? This is a funeral that has joy and life; death appears to be a celebration that is littered with hope and good fortune.
The men continue past us, jangling and singing their way towards the Ghats. The little girl claps and shrieks with delight and picks up the remaining coins that have been thrown at our feet to proudly buy some sweets from the shop owner.
I look at my friend, baffled and say, ‘That was really…’
She smiles and puts her phone away.
‘Ready?’ she asks.
I nod, smile politely and say, ‘Yeah, ready as I’ll ever be.’
We start to walk again but in no particular direction. Yes, we are still lost but since we arrived in India we have learnt to adapt and improvise; we have been challenged to be creative and think outside the chapters of the Lonely Planet guide to life.
The idea of finding the ‘real’ is not something that can be isolated to one country, it exists everywhere. I believe I saw India as a concept rather than a place and realise now that my idea of the ‘real India’ was a naïve notion.
Wherever it is you choose to visit or live in the world there is going to be dirt, there is going to be shit and there is always going to be someone suffering, because this is the human condition; it is universal and India is no exception.
Yet it is through this same human condition that we find beauty, express kindness and love that has the ability to surpass geographical boundaries. Because no matter where you are in this great old world, if you choose to, you can always find light in the darkness.
Or if you are very lucky, it will find you.
Image: Ryan via Flickr