In March 2004 I was 25 years old. With not a care in the world, no particular place to be and zero commitments to speak of, I packed up a rucksack and headed off to India. The future lay sparkling and I thought it would last forever.
“Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet!” The man paused outside our carriage door with a hopeful smile, a wide tray of the aforementioned snacks hanging from his scrawny neck. ‘‘No thank you’’ said Lisa and with a subservient nod he was gone, though we both knew he’d be back again before too long.
Dropping my book onto the blanket, I shifted myself up into a sitting position and peered out the window at the countryside rushing by. “Forty seven!” announced Lisa cheerfully from her bed. ‘‘Huh?’’ I responded. ‘‘Hours!’’ she laughed, ‘‘one down, forty-seven to go”. ‘‘Ah yes’’ I grimaced and it suddenly hit me that we’d made a monumental mistake. Forty-eight hours on a train! What were we thinking?
I turned back to my book with a sigh, bracing myself for the challenge ahead. I’d been put through some tricky tests during my time in India and it looked like this was going to be the final reckoning as I closed in on the end of my trip. Our route from Fort Kochi up to Delhi would take us through two thirds of the entire length of the country, a staggering one thousand six hundred and sixty six miles!
Our last night in Benaulim turned out to be a blast! Phil, Lisa, Allan and I had one beer too many at our local restaurant and ended up doing what we’d resolved never to do: pay a visit to Dominick’s, the town’s sole nightclub. It was little more than a wobbly shack with a dance floor of golden sand. We got pretty drunk on cheap beers and spirits, so much in fact that I found myself raving away to the likes of Y.M.C.A, I Will Survive, D.I.S.C.O and all the other crap I’d normally run a mile from. Inhabited by just a handful of local boys who were clearly die-hard regulars, one of them was so thrilled by our presence he literally went nuts!
He was dancing so close to me we were eyeball to eyeball! The kid knocked out some seriously funky dance moves right into my disbelieving face, his arms and legs flailing in all directions. It’s an image I’ll never forget, though my defining memory of that night is of Allan who was laughing so hard I thought he might pass out.
“Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet!” He was back outside our door so I gave him an empathetic nod and… once again… he took the rebuttal in good humor, sauntering off down the train with his aromatic goods. ‘‘Thirty two hours’’ said Lisa, nibbling on a cookie, ‘‘shall we play eye spy?’’
It was tough to leave Benaulim behind, its sleepy atmosphere having made for the most relaxing leg of my travels. Happily though, we’d also chosen wisely for our next destination. It was a draining fourteen hours down to the state of Kerala and then a further three to Kochi, a major port on the south west coast. Allan and I decided to rent an apartment in the city’s charming Fort Kochi neighbourhood. It was a big old building with enough room for Lisa and Phil, who would be arriving separately over the coming days. Until then there was plenty to be getting on with and we slipped easily into local life, enjoying regular beach walks and delicious seafood dinners with views of the giant Chinese fishing nets dotted across the shore.
When Lisa joined the party, the three of us spent a day touring Kerala’s rural backwaters in a wooden boat. Our captain was a chatty local called Saab who, with great effort, heaved us along a series of emerald green canals using a cumbersome bamboo pole. “Is easy!’’ he lied with a breathless laugh. Eventually, having passed a few villages and several grand houseboats, the narrow waterways broke out into a wide blue-grey lake where we jumped out for a refreshing swim. Clambering back onboard, the group was welcomed by a tasty lunch of vegetable curries served on a giant banana leaf. “Enjoy!” ordered Saab and with exchanged smiles we dutifully obliged.
It had been a fantastic day and I was in fine spirits that night, totally unprepared for the news Allan brought me back at the apartment after dinner. ‘‘I’m heading home’’ he announced with a regretful smile, before launching into an explanation that involved a number of problems with an apartment he was renting out in Edinburgh. The situation was now in need of his presence and, he admitted, it felt like the trip was coming to a natural conclusion anyway. While I told him that I understood, internally I was gutted. The news had come so suddenly that I was in a bit of a daze the next morning when he left after breakfast. With a brief hug and one last wave for the camera Allan turned, headed down the lane and disappeared from view.
“Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet!” Highly disoriented and confused, I bolted upright, smacking my head on the metal springs of the top bunk. “Bollocks!’’ I cursed and it actually took me a moment to get my bearings. ‘‘Lisa, you awake?’’ There was a long pause followed by the rustling of a blanket, ‘‘yeah’’. “What time is it?” I asked, as cutlet man, barely visible in the darkness, gave up on us and moved on. ‘‘Three a.m.’’ she managed through yawn-speak and I cursed again, burying my head under the blanket. ‘‘Twenty seven hours’’ came her muffled voice.
“They’re so beautiful!” cooed Lisa, peering out at the seemingly endless row of decorated elephants, a procession of swinging trunks, glittery headdresses and towering parasols. ‘‘Must be a bugger to get them all ready” noted Phil, fiddling with his camera. He’d arrived the day before in a blaze of glory, singing the theme tune to Top Cat and sporting a massive scabbed leg wound sustained during a moped accident back in Goa. “Well, I crashed the bloody thing” he explained with a philosophical shrug.
We were at Kerala’s annual Elephant festival and it was a sizzling hot day, the ever-swelling crowds absorbing what little oxygen there was. In a somewhat pointless attempt to protect myself, I’d fashioned a headdress of my own from a scarf bought at a local market.
Yet the heat couldn’t spoil what was another great experience, the elephants performing a graceful march to a backdrop of flag-hoisting and thumping drums. In the evening there were fireworks and live music, not to mention the eventful process of trying to get home. It took us an age to flag down an available rickshaw and even then we had to share it with another group, the vehicle so horribly overloaded Lisa, Phil and I were hanging off the sides like primates.
Charmed by the beauty and character of Kerala’s elephants, Lisa and I were keen to see more, so we headed out to a nearby sanctuary for some up close and personal time. Set in a verdant riverside village, the centre was home to some twelve elephants, including a pair of adorably playful babies. It was touching to observe the bond between animal and trainer and a real treat to get to wash and feed them. In the minivan back to Fort Kochi, it struck me how much kinder the second half of my trip had been to me and how the skulking claustrophobia of Jaipur now seemed as far away and trivial as a bad dream.
‘‘How’s your vegetable cutlet?’’ asked Lisa, taking an uncertain bite of her own. ‘‘I don’t hate it’’ I replied, gazing out the window but not really looking. I was in a foul mood, with a bad case of cabin fever that no amount of pacing up and down the train could cure. “Fifteen hours!’’ she said.
Reaching over to the little table between our beds, I opened the box of Scrabble we’d brought and began idly sifting through the letters. ‘‘Good idea, let’s go!” enthused Lisa but I was not feeling social. ‘‘No, I’m just gonna play on my own’’ I muttered, oblivious to the ridiculousness of what I was saying. “Oooooook” she replied, returning to her book with an incredulous shake of the head. It took a few minutes for me to realize how stupid I was being and the guilt set in. ‘‘Come on then!” I said at last, determined to break out of my malaise, ‘‘first person to spell cutlet is the winner’’.
When the Kathakali performance finally finished Phil and I shot out of our seats and scurried out of the theatre as fast as our legs could carry us. ‘‘Oh my god, I really hope we didn’t offend anyone in there!” I laughed, my ribs still sore, tears pouring down my face. ‘‘Dear god!’’ puffed Phil, wiping his own eyes with a snigger. A traditional southern Indian dance, the Kathakali show we’d just seen incorporated colorful masks, gaudy costumes and highly dramatised, mimed facial expressions. We hadn’t meant to be insensitive, but Phil and I had found the whole thing so silly we’d begun chuckling to ourselves. To this day I don’t know how it spiraled so out of control, but we’d at least had the sense to get ourselves out of there before someone ejected us.
We were still calming down when we got back to the apartment. It was late so the three of us sat in the kitchen drinking wine and chatting. It was then that the realization hit me like a cold slap to the face. Lisa and Phil were in the midst of some deep discussion but I was completely detached, unable to focus on anything but the details of what had to be done next. Unsure as to whether the sensation might be a temporary one, I decided to sleep on it to see if I might feel differently in the morning. But from the moment I awoke there was an instant understanding that only one course of action lay ahead. ‘‘Can you pass me the milk?’’ asked Lisa. The two of us were rustling up a makeshift breakfast, Phil still fast asleep. As we sat there eating I mulled over the different ways in which I could break the news. Finally, taking a leaf out of Allan’s book, I opted to be as blunt and honest as I could. ‘‘Lisa…’’ I ventured, bowl of cornflakes in hand, “I’ve had enough, it’s time for me to go home”.
“Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet! Samosa… pakora… vegetable cutlet!” ‘‘Sod off!’’ I mumbled from under the blanket, but he obviously didn’t understand because I could hear him standing there sniffing and shuffling his feet. When at last he was gone I emerged from my bed and gave Lisa a shake. ‘‘Four hours!’’ I grinned, but my heartening news fell on deaf ears, ‘‘I’m so done with this’’ she croaked. We were very much on the same page, I was fed up with it all too. Not just this stupidly long train journey but the trip in general. I was tired of living out of a bag, jaded by the draining heat and the endless negotiations over hotel rooms and taxis. I’d begun daydreaming of a Sunday roast at my parents’ cottage in rural Scotland, of Yorkshire pudding, white sauce and cauliflower. I thought of the rolling green fields around Sweethope and pictured myself taking Inde for a walk up the hill. I could almost feel the cool afternoon breeze on my face and a book under my arm as we made our way.
When we eventually hobbled off at New Delhi Train Station Lisa and I were a pair of gibbering wrecks. Having booked into our guesthouse on Paharganj, we eagerly headed out for pizza and beers followed by a visit to the cinema for good measure. We ended up catching Along Came Polly, a romantic-comedy-by-numbers starring Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston. Not their finest work by a long shot, but a much-needed night at the movies nonetheless. It just felt so good to be off that train, a mammoth tub of popcorn balanced on my lap and the knowledge that a new chapter of my life lay ahead.
‘‘Airport?’’ asked the taxi driver, eyeing my luggage with a greedy leer. ‘‘Yup!’’ I confirmed, but he was already darting over to help me load it all in. I don’t remember much about that final drive, which I spent staring out the window in a disengaged haze. Careering down the motorway at a typically breakneck speed, I thought of Devda the ear cleaner and his little box. I recalled the horror of that awful room in Agra and the breathless beauty of The Taj Mahal. I saw Lindsay gliding through the desert on her camel to the sound of Mr. Magoo’s bowling laughter. Images of James Bond and Bombay cocktails flashed before me as I drifted off to sleep in the back seat. In my restless slumber there were snapshots of the so-called Pink City and for a moment I was back on that damn train again tied to the bed, a masked man laughing manically as he force-fed me from a bowl of vegetable cutlets. The Cashew Kid was whispering some inaudible secret in my ear when I was jolted out of my stupor by the shuddering of brakes.
Stepping out into the stuffy Delhi afternoon, we retrieved our luggage from the boot and made a beeline for the departures hall. Sucking in lungfuls of delicious air con, Lisa and I checked in, handed over our bags and decided on one last Indian meal before going through security. It was a buffet-type deal with rice, curry, Nan and a tempting selection of fried snacks. Loading up my plate with a variety of delights, I dropped my tray down at the register as the cashier looked over everything, calculating the bill in his head. “That’s three hundred Rupees please’’ he said with a smile, “would you like a free vegetable cutlet?”
‘Forty Eight Hours’ is the twelfth and final part of my short story series Incidents In India.