Several times during this trip I have been driven to distraction by the all-encompassing riot that is India. Delhi is in extremis. Compound that with blistering heat, and it becomes obvious to me why this is my least favourite spot. But visit I must to try on my new teeth.
This time I return to the warm embrace of Swaraj and his friends who drag me out to the market to buy fresh Afgan bread and lassis for breakfast. I am easily persuaded, and we join Anand and his Italian wife Lucia on their rooftop nearby who have also prepared a spread. It’s a very warm welcome, and after a 24-hour journey from the hinterlands I am starved.
I make it a general policy when travelling by train to only eat small amounts of food that will guarantee to bind up my insides so any kind of evacuation is well nigh impossible. Such is my horror of using the Indian Railways toilet facilities. After a few hundred passengers and multiple hours they are most definitely worrying and I steer well clear. Anyway, if worse comes to the worse I can always piss out of the door. Indian males have the habit of taking a leak just about anywhere. Any wall or other public space serves as a temporary urinal. They have no shame. They are only slightly more circumspect where they choose to shit. Ideally close to a communal dumping ground adjacent to a river or other suitable shit conveyance. On one early morning train out of Mumbai years ago I spied a very geometric pink pattern along the side of the tracks. Closer inspection revealed row upon row of pink bottoms all squatting to communally empty their bowels in unison.
Anand has just had his three front teeth pulled today, for implants, so I proudly show off my new molars, and joke that we are now teeth-brothers. Later on that evening Swaraj invites me to Charandeep’s birthday party, a great l guy I met last time who extended an open invitation to visit. After a long taxi ride we arrive at his very cool digs, and bottles of cold Kingfisher are passed around, and we converse convivially squatting around a low table. It’s really delightful to chat to this international collection of young people either living or working here, or like me passing through. As the sangria starts to flow, I exchange nods with Jessire who has made a pact with me to leave early, as she isn’t much of a drinker either. A taxi rolls up soundlessly – she has summoned it from her mobile as she has an account. Now this is the way to travel. Whisked around at whim in a nice new A/C cab. Could get used to a bit of upper mobility.
I discover the following day that we made a wise choice to depart early, as Swaraj doesn’t emerge until after noon, holding a sore head, having chorused until past dawn. That’s something I don’t miss with drinking. Jessire has challenged me to cook them my favourite dish, sweet yam Qursedillas. So I phone home for the recipe, and we discuss if any proper cheddar cheese can be found in Delhi. I realize there are some things that are such a staple of my diet at home, that really aren’t part of the typical Indian diet. Cheddar cheese and yeasted bread aren’t too common here. The closest to our breads is a sort of flaccid white equivalent that they try to coax into a distant cousin of toast, and generally comes in sandwich form with an omlette stuffing.
Delhi is so damn hot that I burn the soles of my feet hanging out my washing in the rooftop. Time to skedaddle north – back to the colder embrace of the mountains. I am looking for a home away from home: somewhere tranquil, not too hot and where all the necessities are laid on. Some kind of retreat centre, where I can pause and reflect on my journey. Vipassana Meditation has always drawn me – but it requires a 10-day silent sitting commitment, and even if my fragile psyche was up for it, all the good centres are well booked. I recall a place someone recommended in Rishikesh, up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh called the Deer Park Institute. When a second person suggested it, I got serious and discovered that I could get an overnight train out of Delhi, then complete the journey on a delightful “toy train”. These are a holdover from the British Raj, most often narrow gauge railways pulling heat-prostrated Brits up into the more temperate hill stations. There are still a few left, and I am keen to try out this quaint anachronism built in 1926. Just hope they have done some maintenance since then.
Deer Park Institute is a former Tibetan Buddhist monastery, now converted to an “Indian Wisdom Centre”. It looks beautiful on their website, and is dedicated to furthering all kinds of wisdom practices and studies, from meditation to the finer points of Buddhist philosophy. Just my cup of tea. It’s located in Bir, a Tibetan exile colony to whom the Indian government donated when there was a mass exodus of refugees in 1960. It’s surrounded by forests and of course, the Himalayas. Can’t get enough of these big bits o’ rock.
It’s high season for these hot weather retreats, so chances of booking a train pronto are slim – as my connection goes to Pathankot – the staging point for those also going to Dharamsala. Every spiritual seeker worth their crystals are headed there, so my best bet is to revisit the Foreign Tourist Reservation Office at New Delhi Station. Early arrival is more likely to produce results, so I head out on the remarkably clean and new Metro, which is surprisingly empty at this early Sunday morning. To see unoccupied seats in any form of transportation in India is nothing short of remarkable: no pushing heaving throngs. Just air conditioned clean hush.
When my number is finally called at the Reservation Centre, I am in a state of hopeful anxiety that I can get out tonight. My man keeps shaking his head and punching more keys on his grimy keyboard. It’s not a good sign. My train is completely sold out- all classes, even I am sure on the roof. My heart sinks. How long am I doomed to bake in Delhi? He asks me why I choose that particular train when there is another perfectly serviceable one that just happens to arrive at 3.15AM. No thanks. Looks like we are running out of options when he asks if I don’t mind a sleeper class seat on yet another train which actually arrives at a better time. There is a critical connection to the toy train, and if Indian Railways is as late as they often are, I will miss it, as it leaves one hour after my original train of choice would arrive. The toy train is an all day journey, so there isn’t another. I want to leap over the counter and plant soggy kisses all over my now-no-longer-scowling star IR employee. This way I have got 3 hours to make the connection.
I leave the dreary office with a light heart and don’t even curse as I often do at the shills and touts who are insistently peddling their autos, taxis or hotels. I am leaving tonight! I also got my return ticket, which was a breeze as it’s a week away.
When I return clutching my precious bounty courtesy of Indian Rail, I am hauled into watching Top Gun on Netflicks. Yes, it’s ubiquitous here also. What do you do when it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk outside? My friends feed me again, and pack me off on a prepaid auto en route to my next adventure.