This is the second part of the story of my trip to India in 1995. The first part finished with us witnessing four policemen beating a shack dweller with sticks in a shanty town in Dehli.
As the two policemen approached, I put my hands behind my back, opened the matchbox and emptied the contents into one hand. Three pea-sized pebbles rolled into my cupped palm. The commanding officer barked an order. One of the policemen raised his wooden staff above his head. Feigning shock, I raised a hand to my mouth, managing to snatch a glance at the pebbles and sniff them as I gasped. They were hashish encrusted with dirt and dust. Uh-oh.
One of the few things that I knew about India was that there was a mandatory 10 year prison sentence for possession of hashish and that the courts tended to be fairly strict in their application of the law. Hash-smoking tourists were an easy scapegoat for blaming the country’s social problems on morally degeneracy from overseas. Guide books were full of cautionary tales of naïve tourists doing long prison stretches for smoking joints.
The police officer brought his staff violently down towards me. The staff struck me a glancing blow on my left arm before clattering into a pole behind me. I staggered backwards, exaggerating the force of the impact and, as I did so, I popped the hash-pebbles into my mouth. The staff-wielding officer next aimed a similar blow towards Phil and again failed to connect properly. I took the opportunity afforded by this distraction to stuff the empty matchbox back into my pocket.
The commanding officer now intervened and called off our assailant. He started to speak in English, delivered with a sickly sweet smile. “I have a doubt. I see you are in tension. You boys are up to no good. Show us what you are concealing. Turn out your pockets.” One of the officers approached us and started to search Phil. As he did so, the commanding officer started asking me questions – “where are you put up at? Whence do you hail?” I swallowed the pebbles and prepared to answer. But, his attention was drawn away before I could answer. Phil had produced his wallet and it was stuffed full of rupee notes. We had visited a bank that morning and had each exchanged a couple of hundred dollars. The junior officer showed the wallet to his superior with a triumphant look, then removed all the cash before continuing his search. The pocket-emptying procedure soon switched to me. Again, my wallet was found, again it was stuffed with rupees, again it was emptied. When he came to the match box, I sensed an air of triumph in the man searching me, soon replaced with an air of confusion once he found it to be empty.
Once our pockets and wallets had been thoroughly emptied, the 4 officers conversed amongst themselves. The commander then addressed us again, this time with a wagging finger and paternal tone, to admonish us for having visited such a place and to warn us off from such foolishness in future. He offered to guide us out of the shanty town for our own safety. We meekly agreed and, with bowed heads, we followed them out of the shack. As we approached the boundary of the settlement, we heard a great hullabaloo behind us. I turned to see a large crowd of people following us. They were laughing and pointing at us in a mocking manner. People were emerging from shacks on all sides and spectators had even clambered onto some of the roofs. A wizened old man with very few teeth and a long wispy white beard, dressed only in a loincloth and turban, caught my eye as he cackled at us from his rooftop perch.
When we arrived at the perimeter road, the officers turned smartly on their heels and marched back into the shanty town, leaving us to our own devices. We were stunned. What the hell had just happened?
The whole thing had been an act. The glancing blow that I had received on the arm with the wooden staff was too weak - like being hit by cardboard. They had set us up for a drugs possession charge, presumably in order to extract bribes. The shack dweller must have been in on it. This must have been a semi-regular sting that these officers performed, to the extent that it had become something of a spectator sport amongst the residents.
It wasn’t until much later that night that we worked our way through the details of the operation. We had much greater immediate problems. We were surrounded by a raucous crowd. We had no money. We had no idea where we were. We took off in a random direction just to escape the scene, but quickly realised that we had no idea where our hotel was. What’s worse, we had both completely forgotten its name.
Eventually we found our way back to our hotel. It took 6 hours: 6 miserable hours of trudging through hot, dirty, crowded streets with frayed nerves to accentuate the claustrophobia. After about an hour or so, I started to become delirious, as the dirt-encrusted hashish dissolved in my stomach. Nausea, trauma, exhaustion, anxiety, claustrophobia and stoned is not a good combination. I have no idea how Phil managed to guide us to the hotel, but I couldn’t have been much help.
Escape from Delhi
The next morning, we set ourselves to the task of getting the hell out of Delhi as quickly as we could. Agra and the Taj Mahal was our choice of destination – it looked so pristine, surely it must be less hectic. We were, however, now seriously constrained by the loss of almost half of our money. The train was our only realistic option. We visited Delhi train station, but retreated after a couple of hours in which we had failed to even discover where to enquire about timetables, never mind buy tickets. In India, the genteel practice of forming a queue is unknown – a slow-motion wrestling match involving complicated use of the elbows is the preferred cultural form.
We eventually found a man claiming to be a travel agent who spoke English and promised to acquire tickets for us. He brought us to a simple office immediately opposite the train station where an exceedingly fat man presided over a table full of dishes of food. The fat man sent a boy into the train station and while we waited for the boy to return, he ate. As he finished each dish, a skinny little boy would appear with a fresh dish and he would continue eating. His mark up on our tickets was a mere 120%. Despite our lack of funds, we accepted his offer without much haggling, to escape viewing any more of his one-man-eating show than was absolutely necessary.
The train was due to depart at 8am the next morning. After an evening sheltering from the world in our hotel room, we made it to the train station by 7am, just before dawn. At that hour, almost every square foot of the platform was occupied by sleeping bodies – each with their own little demarcated patch. Many of these micro-territories were home to families. As the sun came up, we witnessed the great stirring of this mass of people, as they readied themselves for the day ahead – dressed their children, did their hair, had a shit on the tracks and all the other rituals of their morning. I was already feeling decidedly ill and, as the sun rose and the stench of the residents’ morning ablutions thickened, my queasiness grew. Swarms of large, biting black flies buzzed around my head. I was wearing a light cotton t-shirt. The flies’ biting apparatus was capable of easily penetrating the thin fabric. Nauseous, overheated, surrounded by misery and stench, with pitiless black, flying-biting machines torturing me, I had arrived at a new low point. Surely it couldn’t keep on getting worse? It did.
3 hours of slow torture in the sun ensued before the train arrived. I struggled on board in a feverish state. Phil found our seats and I slumped into a corner. An hour of further misery ensued before the train roused itself to creep sluggishly out of the station. It crawled tortuously South across the sun-baked, dusty plain of Northern India. Mercifully, this particular train was not crowded – a rare occurrence. It had a characteristically Spartan interior, with wooden benches set into a bare metal shell. I struggled valiantly with my nausea and managed to keep a lid on it until, in an act of wilful violence to my tender senses, a small child sitting opposite me opened a jar of pungent chutney. My stomach rebelled. I raced to the toilet to find further horrors awaiting me there. The floor was a bare metal funnel liberally smeared with semi-liquefied excrement. I spent the remainder of the journey in spasms of retching, as the train lurched along impassively, desperately trying to keep my balance on the floor that was now lubricated with vomit as well as shit.
This did indeed prove to be my low point, the nadir after a week of mounting trauma. However, the next few days were spent bouncing along the bottom, sleeping feverishly in an Agra hotel room, rising only to violently expel liquids from both ends. Phil helped to keep me alive by plying me with liquids and bananas. Unfortunately, he soon succumbed to an illness of his own and joined in the fun.
After a few days, we had recovered enough to eat and walk again and mounted an expedition to see the Taj Mahal. Despite the architectural grandeur, it made but little impression upon us – the temperature was such that we concentrated on darting between the shadows and soon retreated back to the dark haven of our hotel room. When we next emerged, some 24 hours later, we discovered that the rickshaw driver who had ferried us back to the hotel had been sleeping on our doorstep since, in the hope that he might gain another fare from us whenever we finally set out again – another micro-portrait of economic desperation.
The next 5 weeks were spent travelling through the country in a dazed state, with our culture shock now supplemented by gut infections which weakened us substantially. Gradually, we learned to deal with the culture, the climate, the poverty, the discomfort and the incessant hassle. Other aspects of the society became visible – the remnants of great historical empires, the complex ethno-linguistic patchwork, the varied countryside. However, it was never easy. India was a society in which collective trust was at a very low level and this went far beyond the exploitation of tourists’ naivety. Scams and corruption were pervasive. A large proportion of economic transactions between Indians ended in angry disputes about over-charging or cheating. Fraud was endemic. For example, there was a thriving micro-industry in refilling plastic bottles of water with river water, resealing and selling them as mineral water. Probably about 20% of bottles that we bought had to be rejected as they emitted noxious-smelling foul fumes, once opened. The police internal appointment system used an auction model whereby officers could pay up to $500,000 to get the most bribe-friendly posts. Stories abounded about particularly horrific schemes - restaurants poisoning tourists in order to extort money for antidotes – which were probably apocryphal but not entirely implausible in that environment.
Due to our lack of money, we mostly travelled 2nd class on horrendously over-crowded trains, stayed in cheap and grim hotels and ate simple roadside food. Thus we had little contact with the wealthy, who were few in number compared to the poverty-stricken multitude. Those who we did encounter appeared venal and comically self-important. In the last couple of decades, India has experienced the emergence of a small middle class, mostly based on the outsourcing of technical industries from the West. In 1995, this was barely visible. Bangalore, the capital of the new technological India had a collection of shiny new glass and steel office buildings in its centre and a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken – the one and only franchise of a Western fast food in the entire country. It was a strange place. A pair of rifle-toting security guards stood on sentry duty. Inside, it was packed with healthy and clean-looking young people in Western clothes, who appeared to be performing a pantomime re-enactment of Westernised life, based on a model provided by American high-school movies.
Beyond the big cities of the North and the seaside towns of Goa, tourism was a very minor factor. Whenever we got off the beaten track, we would regularly find ourselves surrounded by large groups of people, pointing and staring and sniggering at us and our white skin. Amusingly, many people would initiate conversation by asking whether we were brothers as we looked so alike. It would be hard to find two Irish people of the same age who looked less alike, but when crossing major ethnic boundaries, sure they all look the same.
At first glance, India appears to be politically and culturally unified. It is dominated by one political party, one religion and its culture is uniformly strange to European eyes. However, as one becomes accustomed to the ever-present poverty and weirdness, the regional differences become more apparent. The national political parties are really just shifting alliances of regional big-men and the variations between areas are sometimes extreme – the Communist party held power in Kerala state in the South West for many years, while the social structure of Bihar in the North East retains many aspects of feudalism and still harbours a persistent Maoist insurgency movement among the peasantry, known as the Naxalites. Hinduism too, ceases to resemble a religion the more one looks at it, and breaks down into a collection of local superstitions, Gods, cults and holy men with relatively little in common.
The most striking feature of religious life is the proliferation of holy men, pilgrims, gurus, sadhus and their followers who are normally identifiable by their striking robes and beards. Most of these holy men are undoubtedly genuine – the ascetic sadhu is an established figure in Indian culture and, for many of those without money, it provides a more attractive and achievable social role than the urban slum-dog alternative. The most popular guru at the time was a man called Sai Baba – his picture decorated walls, rickshaws and dashboards all over the country. His particular brand of Eastern mysticism resonated with Westerners seeking spiritual answers. We encountered several of his English devotees in our travels, and they would typically express a great love for their guru’s wisdom, and laud the spirituality and lack of materialism of India compared to the corrupt West. I always had to struggle to suppress the word “moron” in responding to such people. “I don’t find starving babies, dying in squalor, to be especially spiritual” normally got my point across and ended the conversation swiftly without having to be explicitly rude.
After 5 weeks travelling all around the country, from the Himalayas to the far South, we were ready to return to the comforts of the West. We were both emaciated and exhausted due to persistent bugs. My digestive system never recovered fully: I still get semi-regular bouts of diarrhoea, some 18 years later, a fitting souvenir of the trip. More happily, by the time we returned to Delhi, I had started to overcome the acute sense of culture shock and was starting to feel somewhat at ease. The crucial development was coming up with a technique for dismissing persistent hustlers efficiently and without rancour. Everything got a lot easier after that.
In those days, it was still necessary to confirm long-haul flights a couple of days in advance, so we travelled to the Tajik Air office in an obscure suburb of Delhi to “do the needful”. The sight of a reasonably sized and obviously disgruntled crowd outside their office caused us some dismay. A couple of hours later we learned that, while we had been in India, the airline had been banned from landing in the UK due to deficient safety standards.
To cut a long and excessively tedious story short, we eventually succeeded in exchanging our tickets for seats with another operator – Air Turkmenistan, although it did necessitate enduring 3 extra nights in Delhi. I was sleeping badly, so procured some valium tablets, in order to get some proper rest before leaving and to ease my frayed nerves in transit. I judged that they might not stand up well to another ancient airplane. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see a modern Boeing jet in the Turkmenistan livery waiting for us on at the airport. Once on board, I swallowed my pill and Phil did likewise, and we settled ourselves in to sleep our way back to European civilization.
My heavy, drug-enhanced sleep came to an abrupt end when something poked me repeatedly in the face. My eyes opened to the barrel of an AK47, no more than an inch from my face. Behind the rifle was a man in uniform, wearing the largest hat I have ever seen – a round flat-topped military cap, with a circumference that was twice that of his head. He appeared angry. I looked around to see an empty aircraft. He was urgently gesturing for us to leave the cabin. We complied as hastily as we could manage.
We were in Ashgobat, the capital of Turkmenistan, the second surprise visit to a Central Asian capital of our tour. This time, however, the wait was longer. Half a day passed before we were ushered onto another plane. Kiev in Ukraine was our next mystery destination. After a few hours, we were on our way again and this time we landed in Heathrow. Never before or since have I been happier to see the dull grey tones of a rainy morning in England.