I arrived in Varanasi by minibus, a stubby little eight-seater that clumped and bumped along the straight and rutted roads of Uttar Pradesh from the Nepalese border. It took three interminable and baking days – days I spent sitting opposite an Australian hippy wearing a Victorian nightdress. Having no humanity or fellow feeling whatsoever he read aloud from Shakespeare’s sonnets the whole way. Frankly, I’ll never compare anyone to a summer’s day as long as I live; not after that.
Other passengers included an immaculate family of diminutive Indians. The pocket paterfamilias wore a white shirt, string vest, pressed trousers and shined shoes; the mini-matriarch was sandalwood-scented in a silk sari; the young princeling sported an Aertex shirt, grey shorts, old-fashioned school sandals. They never seemed to sweat this family, the flies never alighted on them. They took chapatis from one Tupperware box and scooped up dahl from another, yet no grease was left on their nimble fingers. Were they perhaps – I idly considered – coated in transparent Teflon?
The nights we spent in wayside caravanserai, where I sweated and boinged on unstrung charpoys. Grey dawn would find me as fatalistic as any native, and shamelessly shitting at the side of a field. The landscape was so unfinished and yet so used up, like a vast kitchen in which no one had troubled to do the washing up for several millennia. By the time we reached the Holy City I’d just about had enough of travelling. I booked into the government tourist bungalow and took to my bed. The room was an upended stone shoebox with nothing in it besides a mattress and a bare lightbulb. Outside there was an ox park. All day long an untouchable woman scraped up the dung and mounded it into a compact ziggurat which abutted the exterior wall of my room. When night came she lay down on top of it and we slept within arm’s reach of one another.
After three days I felt well enough to venture out. I’d met an excitable Ukranian while sucking on tall bottles of Stag Ale in the bungalow’s restaurant. He told me that he was in exile, his father – a high Soviet official – had sent him abroad to escape military service in Afghanistan. He believed in every single conspiracy theory going: the Jews controlled the US and the USSR, while in turn themselves being controlled by Venusians whose spacecraft was moored in the Bermuda Triangle. You could spot the aliens, he said, by their propensity for baldness and driving convertible Mercedes.
We went to the railway station, so that I could buy a ticket for the Himigri-Howra Express, a mighty Aryan iron-horse that would drag me clear across the north of the Subcontinent to Chandigarh. I got a chitty from Window A and took it for authorisation to Window B. At Window B I received a second chitty and took it to the Sales Booth. Every single step had to be taken through a dense thicket of humanity, thorny limbs pricked me, twiggy fingers scratched me. I emerged blinking and bedevilled into the harsh light of the maidan. The Ukranian examined my ticket and pointed out that I’d mistakenly bought one for the service that departed in eight days’ time, rather than on the morrow. I considered the hour-long battle that would be required to change the ticket, and taking my lead from the ideas of astrological propitiousness embodied in Indian culture, rather than the cult of horological precipitateness enshrined in my own, I determined to stay the extra seven days in the Holy City.
Another kulfi-headache dawn. I’d linked up with a Canadian Buddhist – the very worst kind. He propped me on the handlebars of his Supercomet bike and pedalled us both down to the bathing ghats. Downriver I could see smoke rising from the death barbecue: long-pig griddling for breakfast. The Buddhist knelt and prayed angrily, while I shared a chillum with a crusty sadhu. There was grit in the air, grit on my eyes, grit in my retinal afterimages. The terracing of temples and shrines, the lapping brown limbs of the goddess Ganga – for some hazy, hashy reason it all reminded me of Brighton. So it seemed like a perfectly logical step to strip, wind a lungi around my snaky hips, and descend into the natal flow. Half-way across I collided with the corpse of a cow, which, bloated to four times its life size, revolved slowly in the viral current. I spluttered, coughed, and went under while ingurgitating spirochaetes to last me a lifetime.
All this happened 20 years ago, and I’d like to say that it seems like yesterday, but it doesn’t: it seems like 20 years ago. Nowadays I’m a much older, less adventurous and less stoned man. Nowadays I would change my ticket. Although, come to think of it, since my ultimate destination was Kashmir, I probably wouldn’t be travelling there at all. The past is another country – and the frontier is