Our guide is 28, married and Brahman. He says he wonders about the purpose of life. It’s hard to read people across cultures but he doesn’t seem to care that much. Then again, it probably seems to him that I don’t so it’s best not to judge.
He particularly likes the god Hanuman. He is strong, a great warrior, and the first follower of Rama. The story of Rama and his wife Sita is part of an annual festival that lasts ten days called the Dussehra.
In most of northern and western India, Dasha-Hara (literally, “ten days”) is celebrated in honour of Rama. Thousands of drama-dance-music plays based on the Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas are performed at outdoor fairs across the land, in temporarily built staging grounds featuring effigies of demons Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghanada are held. The effigies are burnt on bonfires in the evening of Vijayadashami-Dussehra.
Our guide said that the story is told in four hour performances over the ten nights leading to Rama’s final victory over Ravana. The victory of good over evil. A flaming arrow shot into the effigies ignites and destroys them.
The guide tells me that each person is reincarnated seven times. You don’t know if you’re in your first or seventh incarnation, but being human suggests that you did something good in the past. Man is the penthouse suite of creation which is not an idea I really agree with. It seems to privilege consciousness too much. But it should mean that we are a brother and sisterhood of beings who all have good in our past, and the experience of having been another consciousness: a cockroach, a rock at the bottom of a river, a bird hanging high on the updrafts. That should make humans something special, shouldn’t it? Well, it would if the knowledge of goodness and otherness was evident in us all I suppose.
After the bus ride back from Agra to Delhi we had three hours to kill before our train ride. Should we take the metro to some shops? Some hesitation, but ok. It put us in India for once. Not in a monument, or a foreigner friendly restaurant, but on the trains.
In the metro, waiting for the guide to come back with tokens, an old man approached me.
“Where are you from?”
“So many pretty flowers,” he said nodding at the girls and chuckling.
“You are a lucky man.”
I shrugged, not wanting to play the game: the imaginary brotherhood of the cock.
“Have a nice day.”
Down in the metro the girls got on the woman only carriage. I went in one of the other ones. At the other end of the metro we found a cafe and flooded in with our exotic cool. The coffee was terrible but I enjoyed it. And the chippies. And the samosa. We could have been anywhere in the world. Sometimes that’s nice.
We picked up our packed lunches in a car park that stank of urine. Urine in a fan oven. Then we walked to the bus. To walk with bags, literally bags, of food past the poor and starving wearing my stupid white man skin. Fuck. We put all the bags of food down. A man hung about asking for food. I gave him 10 rupee. The point of which being nothing. A fee to my pricked conscience.
Then into the thick of Delhi Station with suitcases. Weaving through the crowds, around the families camped on the ground eating, or the men lying down to sleep, through the sheep pen maze of railings to the metal detector. Up the stairs, along the bridge, down the stairs. It reminded me of Japan. The heat, the noise, the time pressure, but for quite a few of the girls it was pretty full on. A bit too real.
After all that the train drifted out of Delhi Railway Station serenely and on time. We passed vacant lots and ponds so clogged and covered with rubbish you could see neither land nor water. A rejoinder to the posters and signs about cleaning up India. After the sweaty chaos of getting on to the train we settled into quiet, into the slow rocking sway of the carriage. Soon, men in blue polos and caps (“Doon’s”) started marching up and down the aisles selling chips, chai, water and snacks.
Two men in white, with rimless white caps, hands at their backs, walk quietly between fields up a dirt track. A little black puppy lollops across rough ground. 20, 30 young men out on a beaten earth court playing volleyball. A cat, as a rare as a woman out after dark, regards the train as it passes. A sense of people coming in from the land and the busyness before dark. The moon, low and large, an orange disk sliding up on the “wrong” side of the train, disorients me.