The Laughing River (Nepal and India)



A couple of forms filled in and we were out of the Indian border post that looked more like a small outlet selling momos and chai, then we exited what one could call the duty free area, soon finding a bus about to start towards Gorakhpur.A similar scenery was welcoming us in India, with the same poverty that was not striking one, rather modestly smiling at the stranger, inviting him to stop, sit down and take it easy, with a clear but peaceful thought. This mood was to continue as we reached the railway station in Gorakhpur and got to the front of the line too late for the fast train to Varanasi.

Instead, without any tickets - as they laughed at us when saying we (i.e. foreigners) wanted 2nd class tickets for a slow local train - we boarded the latter. It was slow indeed, with many long stops, allowing even freight trains to take it over, but, on the other hand, it was an experience in itself. Masala chai, seeds, kormai, pakhora, all were sold by ambulant vendors that would walk all through the train and passengers would share their foodstuffs while slowly talking. The train was used by many different people, from poor families with many children, to curious young men flocking over our heads and willing to communicate with the obvious strangers. We talked for a while with a boy born of a German father and an Indian mother, then to a gentleman which was working in Saudi Arabia, nowadays back in his home country to buy a new house for his family. As he said, "my house is all over the world, my house is where I am".

Of the passengers on that train, women would stand out, with their colourful outfits. Whether sitting on a bench with their whole family or directly on the wagon floor next to their husbands and large bags of cereals and other merchandise they were taking to the city, mostly coming from poor families, they were graceful, dignifully wearing their sarees otherwise made of cheap, even though beautiful fabric. Sometimes small and simple, other times large and elaborate pieces of jewelery, bright green or yellow sarees or dark, basic blankets, dusty and sometimes torn out sandals or slippers, all were worn with ultimate grace and they made the train ride turn into a journey into another world. If this second class train was not for foreigners, it had better remain like that, with its being authentic and non-commercial. More than anything, this train showed the degree to which time is meaningless in India, and we were just about to reach the place that would underline that once again, the very reason that had made me ever start that way.

We arrived in Varanasi late at night, finding a station full of people: people coming after a day's journey or preparing to depart on board of a night train, people sleeping on the platforms, in and in front of the station, piles of luggage, rickshaw drivers proposing travelers a ride... Taking a motorickshaw, we went to a small hotel near the Ganges, from where one would be awaken by the vibrant city the following day. It was captivating to discover the contrasting city during the day, with the narrow streets hosting cows, rickshaws, children, merchants, dogs and that never ending life beat, just score meters from a ghat where a quiet, calm and respectful but nevertheless natural, almost ceremonial atmosphere overwhelmed everything. People were bathing in the river, children were running around laughing at strangers, while the river was almost solemnly running, taking down all these images, all this music and all these faces. I had reached the initial purpose of the trip: the river was there, in front of me, quietly laughing at me, steadily and naturally carrying down all those flavours, blessings, ashes coming from corpses cremated on ghats, paans, all sorrow and happiness of people bathing there...

The day passed by among rickshaws, merchants dealing - as always - illusions, boatmen, people selling karma improvement treatments or potato momos and chai. In the evening, the river shone and its ghats were overwhelmed by the smoke generated by a few places where corpses of the richer were cremated, while a vibrant music came from a festival held on another ghat. In quieter places along the river shore, people were saying prayers, they were having an evening bath or they were placing flower petals in the holy river. Without being possible for one to put everything in words, India is the Ganges and the Ganges is indeed India; furthermore, the Ganges is everything. To see why, one has to go, see, smell, hear and feel the Laughing River.

We took a night train to Agra; this time we were in sleeper class, and we were not the only tourists there, sharing the open wagon with many local people, but also with a few Japanese travelers. Agra was more enjoyable through its crowded, dusty and noisy streets than through the crowds and the sights at the Taj Mahal. I did not like the Taj Mahal: it looked more like a mediaeval Palace of the Parliament of Bucharest, with its dimensions and artificial purity meant to impress at all costs. The use of white marble alone had resulted in architectural details fading away, while the search for design perfection in a country where the most important thing is its being alive, imperfect and overwhelming - was nothing but like taking a bike to cross the ocean. To break it even more from the outside world, it had been cut off from everything not by itself, but by wide gardens, meant to create and maintain its being omnipotent and egocentric. I preferred to it Jama Masjid mosque, as it was surrounded by a chowk, with noise, people, with life all around, as well as with a better emphasized architectural design and detail. Furthermore, the alternation of red and white was enchanting, while the blend of Islamic art and local patterns was better emphasized.

As evening came, we moved towards the station, getting to New Delhi on board of a fancy express train, where, however, the most important thing had been lost. There were comfortable, soft seats, one could admire posters of India on the walls, polite staff of the railway company served meals, the train was air conditioned and it was used solely by the upper class, as well as by foreigners. However there were no ambulant vendors, there was no dusty air coming from the outside, the sound-proof windows could not be opened. The train was a world in a world, it did not interfere with the outside and its passengers were kept at a safe distance from anything they could interfere with. Sad.

Reaching New Delhi just an hour before New Year 2007, it took us some time to find a motorickshaw that would take us to the Paharganj Quarter at a convenient rate. The city was relatively quiet and it was just after midnight that a few people went out in the narrow streets of the Paharganj to celebrate, throw petards or fireworks. There were quite many foreigners in this quarter which looked similar, up to an extent, with the area around Freak Street and Durbar Square in Kathmandu. At daytime it was overwhelmed by a flow of people, rickshaws and merchandise, with those small restaurants serving simple, tasty chapati and biryanis, with the eternal chai, with merchants approaching pedestrians, trying to sell a T-shirt, a glass of fresh juice or some "herbs". Paharganj is one of the places where one could very well spend a long time without even noticing - or actually without ever caring about - time passing.

The following couple of days we discovered a city full of life, but clearly divided, between the wide, tree bordered avenues to the South, respectively the chowks and many merchants in or around the old city. While the wide avenues around the former viceroy's residence aimed at perfection and therefore looked dead, just like similar ones in Europe, the busy streets to the North looked like rivers one could never avoid or jump over but be overwhelmed by. The vastness of the official buildings along Rajpath imposed itself over pedestrians that were supposed to feel humble in the shadow of this grand design someone had certainly been proud of at a certain moment. We were fortunate to discover Purana Qila and its different approach to power; it felt like a breath of fresh air from righteous, imposing but nevertheless fake intruders' heritage in New Delhi.

The fine decoration of the mosque, the simple, but exquisite ceramic tile panels or the alternation of red and white layers reminding one of Azem Palace in Damascus, all made it for a fine, relaxing and inspiring afternoon. Taking yet another night train to Udaipur, we found places on board of an AC3 sleeper, with richer people using the service of porters to fit their luggage in. In the morning, we discovered a quiet, pleasant town on the lake shore, again with many rooftop restaurants providing fine views over the community, with a pleyade of guesthouses, fancy hotels and souvenir shops. At around noon, the town got crowded with tourists that filled its narrow streets and the City Palace museum. Overall, even though comfortably pleasant, Udaipur retained a touch similar to a popular Greek island I did not personally enjoy too much. While most of the businesses there were tourist-targeted, only a few people washing clothes in the lake reminded one of regular life. For this reason I preferred the life beat in the old part of New Delhi.

Taking a bus to Jodhpur, we crossed an inspiring quasi-desertic area with only a few, small villages on the way. The road was narrow and there was little traffic, while the scenery was generally unspoiled - at least for the first part. Together with the crowded, busy streets and the Ganges beaming of life, rural India was captivating and overwhelming in the same time. Small clay cottages sometimes covered with reed, some other times with hand made ceramic tiles, would border dusty, unpaved streets where score children were running, playing or shouting at each other. Women dressed in colourful clothes would make the dry fields sparkle, while a small crossing of two streets had many people in the community congregate in the evening, around the local hairdresser's, grocer's, or just around a cup of chai by the road. The extent to which many local communities had preserved their being natural even in the dawn of the 21st century, despite the poverty it also meant, was worth the trip alone.

Arriving in Jodhpur in the evening, we moved from bus to rickshaw and from rickshaw to yet another train, meant to take us to Jaisalmer. Together with many soldiers, a few local families and a dozen of other backpackers from different corners of the world, we boarded a poorly maintained, dusty, if not sandy, wagon. We were to find out on the way back where the dust and sand had come from, as the wind would simply make the desert dust and sand fill in the whole wagon. We woke up in Jaisalmer at 05.30 AM, to find a small station probably built at the time of the war with Pakistan in 1965, nowadays with only 3 trains a day making the junction with Jodhpur and Delhi. After sticking to the other foreigners in order to offer rides to the old town and fort, the few rickshaw drivers went away, with us remaining there until the central ticket reservation system started, at 08.00 AM. Tickets bought, we went to the town, just to discover a fort that finely blended the defensive and decorative purposes. Strong, thick walls and bastions hosted real masterpieces of sandstone carving, with Jainist temples, merchant houses, wood sculpted doors and windows, narrow streets and the eternal cow every now and then peacefully walking around. Even though full of tourists, with many merchants selling souvenirs in the narrow streets, the city had managed to preserve its charm, with colourful pieces of cloth, head scarves or shirts hung against desert-like or light blue walls, with green or red guesthouse or hotel signposts placed in front of finely decorated balconies and window frames. Furthermore, rooftop cafes and restaurants provided a quiet and pleasant place - Indian air force planes permitting. In front of the few havelis down the hill from the fort, colourfully dressed women and girls were trying to make a living by selling pieces of jewelery or other artefacts to the few tourists around: the same grace and unpretentious elegance met on the train from Gorakhpur stroke one; they looked like red flowers in the desert-like city around.

We continued overnight to Ajmer, which required a change of train in Phulera. In that town and at that hour of the night, we shared the station with a few men selling pakora and chai to train passengers, waiting long hours at night between trains to make a living. Despite the bitter cold, even there and then, India proved to be alive and warm, living every second at its most.

After jumping from train to bus, we reached Pushkar, home to many temples placed on the hillside around a picturesque lake where Brahma is said to have placed a lotus flower on the ground. The white and light blue painted houses, as well as the narrow ghats were appealing, nicely fitting the natural scenery around, however there was something strange about Pushkar: losing much of their tranquility and long preserved peace because of the many tourists slowly but irreversibly changing the life and appearance of their town, the inhabitants were trying hard to make some profits from their guests with the risk of changing the very meaning of paying a visit to a holy temple or site. Originally meant to embetter one's karma, placing flowers on the lake or in a temple was nowadays turning into pure business, with merchants sticking around the ghats and temples in order to negotiate the price for happiness, despite the effort underdone by other community members that tried to show tradition to foreigners for free; it was hard to make the difference between the two, but it was well worth, because, once one discovered a person willing to explain and not to play the holy man, the world appeared in a different light. However the whole situation made sense, as it was sad to see those people with such beautiful traditions and heritage being virtually pushed by the present to turn the most precious part of their lives into a mercantile existence. It was - in a way - similar with the fate of the former Nabateans in Petra pushed away from their millenary home to make place for tourists, or with the women in Jaisalmer, and I was guilty for this statu quo, just as much as all intruders at Pushkar, whether arriving there by rented car, bus, motorbike, walking or on an all inclusive tour.

The very same issue however made me greatly enjoy India for what there was beyond temples, cities and museums: for the people living there, for their not placing great value on the past, but rather on the life flow, for their being optimistic, for their use of bright colours and sounds, for their audacious and, nonetheless, for the river around which they organized their whole lives. I did not personally like the Taj Mahal for it was too white, too big and... too perfect to be true, but I instead found my greatest interest in people walking or riding motorbikes in those dusty streets. The following day, while visiting the Hawa Mahal, one of the buildings which had given the nick-name of the "Pink City" to Jaipur, I was looking at the rather carmine walls, seeing no pink. This was the India I saw, the glorification of mankind as it is, imperfect, instead of pretending we are something we are not. It was there that I realized that if I ever go back to India - and I hope I do - it will be for the life beat there and - yes - for the river. The noisy, the laughing one.

Beginning the way back home, we had a day between flights in the United Arab Emirates, to admire rebuilt forts re-fortified by high office buildings made of concrete, steel and glass. We took a breath of peace in Umm Al-Qaiwain, away from the 21st century souq of Dubai. Then, just before getting on another plane, we could see a whole city moving to another city on a daily basis, as people would sleep in Sharjah and work in Dubai. Istanbul was waiting with the same cafe and with its same narghilehs, but most of the tourists that had come for New Year's were already gone; smugglers had partially replaced them and we were to share the bus to Bucharest with them.

A bus where the air-conditioning system could not keep the pace with a dozen of people continuously smoking. Smugglers not knowing what to expect from the Bulgarian and Romanian customs officers, now that both countries had joined the EU a few days before. People sharing the bribe costs - as always - in order to be allowed to go on with their parcels of merchandise. A crazy burst of joy once the border in the new EU was crossed, turning the turbofolk music to maximum and dancing as the bus continued along the road. Another bribe for the joined Romanian-Bulgarian customs control and another burst of joy. Despite the discomfort of the moment, I could hardly imagine a more appropriate way home from India. It was in fact the same crazy life flow I had followed in Paharganj, on the bus from Pokhara to Butwal or in in the chowk of Jaipur...


THE INDIAN SECTION (you are here)

More than anything, the very interference with the one next to me, whether on a train, bus or in the street, was a great experience, showing how much we sometimes miss being natural, just because we tend to search for perfection instead of being happy with our being... imperfect. This is what I enjoyed mostly in India: its being natural, winding instead of straight, slow instead of fast; because this is the very essence of human nature.