New Delhi train station was a daunting sight. The air was a combination of acrid and flatulent scents. Human and animal excrement, raw exhaust from a variety of fuels; smog, wood-smoke, burning manure, charcoal fires, kerosene, refuse and sewage. The people did not seem threatening, but their poverty assailed me in a way I had not expected. I had seen very poor people in Cambodia and Vietnam, yet here they seemed far poorer and dirtier. Indeed, some men, some children, seemed as lank and undernourished as the hungry, mangy animals; the eczema dogs, the cataract cats. It was heart-breaking. In their midst I didn’t feel so much like a target as a brazen show of opulence, if only for being clean and well-fed; like the occupants of the billboards, who smiled down with success.
It was five in the morning and the floor of the station concourse was full of sleeping people. Either they slept here regularly or were awaiting early trains. Where was this fabled new middle class, I wondered? Perhaps they would arrive later in taxis.
Having been the unsuccessful target of several confidence tricks already, I was wary, but confident now that I would not be fooled; or, at least, not fooled in a way that was not to my advantage. I stepped through the people, who oddly enough paid no attention to me, until I was closer to the ticket window. A man spotted me and called.
“Here, you must come here, fill in form.”
“Here, form for ticket.”
I followed him, expecting another scam of some sort. He took me to the far ticket window and picked up a form from the counter, handing it to me.
“Here fill in, then must come to office. Office is closed, so you go to emergency office. Come.”
He started to walk off. So perfunctory! I followed him. I had read that there was an office for foreigners upstairs that opened at eight. So far, he seemed to be telling the truth. I looked at the form, it was shabbily printed from and antiquated stencil, but it could well be legitimate. What would I know? I followed him back out of the station; through the jostling, belching auto-rickshaws, across the potholes and puddles, down a street full of rubbish. Again I saw an office with an official sounding name, this time up a steep and narrow staircase across a temporary bridge over an open sewer. The man motioned me to follow him up the stairs. I went up, head ducked against the low roof. Inside was a tired little office and a tired little man. His forehead was covered in sweat and his eyes were red. He looked half asleep and entirely exhausted. I thought he might be sick, and a moment later, he coughed as he tried to speak, then gave up.
The man who had brought me here spoke in Hindi. I heard the word Agra and figured he now knew my purpose. Immediately after speaking, my escort left.
“The six-fifteen,” I reiterated. “Please, thank you.”
The tired man turned on his computer and I began to despair. If this was the official, emergency tourist office, why was his computer off in the first place? I felt sure once again that I had been brought to another poser who would sooner have me in the back of his brother’s taxi than on the train to Agra.
His computer took forever to boot, and tired and nervous, I laughed. If his computer was as shit as this, then it likely was the official office! At least now I was near the train station and soon it would be light. If he couldn’t help me, someone nearby surely could. After a time, he had the website up on his screen. He looked. I looked. It was entirely different to the one I had seen earlier in the other conman’s office.
“No,” he said. “No tickets. But, you can go on the eleven-thirty train. No problems.”
It was a set-back, but I was pleased. I suddenly felt a strong inclination to trust him. He looked tired and bored enough not to be trying to sell me something. He had an air of exhausted honesty about him.
“That’s good,” I said. “But it is much later. Does the ticket office open at eight?”
“Yes, at eight o’clock.”
“Good. Then, I will go there at eight.”
I wanted to get away, though I wasn’t sure where. It never occurred to me to ask him about buses, and I walked out of the office with the idea in mind that I would go and find out about these. Where, exactly, I did not know, but I had seen many buses in the car park and figured the train station might also serve as a bus station.
I crossed the sewer, crossed the road, and walked to the ticket terrace at the front of the station. Now I was approached by another man. He was tall and lean, with hollow cheeks and a short, sparse beard. He had a laid-back wisdom in his eyes, and something about his expression suggested he was genuine.
“Where are you going?” he asked, as everyone had before.
“To Agra. But the train is full.”
“Do you have a piece of paper? A pen?”
I pulled some paper from my pocket and handed it to him.
He turned to the wall, and, leaning on it, proceeded to write some numbers down.
“This is the train you want. Number 2165. This is the time, 0615.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “But I have no ticket. The train is full.”
“You need a ticket? Then come with me.”
I wondered why he seemed so genuinely concerned. Perhaps he hoped for a tip of some kind. Either way, he seemed to want to help me and I was grateful. The first three people I’d met had tried to con me. The next three had tried to help. The balance sheet was evening up and already I felt more hopeful about the next couple of months. It was, after all, only reasonable to expect rip-off artists in a big, poor city like Delhi. It was hardly any different in Naples.
He led me the same way that the first man had led me; through the crowd of people and rickshaws, through the mud and dogs and cows. I began to smile with bemusement as he showed me to the very same office to which the other man had showed me.
“Oh, yes, I have been here before.”
“Come,” he said, and led me up the stairs.
There, once again, was the tired, sick man behind his desk. He smiled at me, a little surprised to see me again. Or was it because he had been expecting me? I fumbled in my pocket for a small note, but I only had 500s. I wanted to tip the man who had brought me here. I apologised, but he waved it away. At last, a truly honest man!
The lean man spoke in Hindi, and again I heard the word Agra.
“I know, the train is full,” I said, over their conversation. “Is there a bus?”
“Yes, there is a bus at six thirty,” said the man behind the desk.
“Perfect, I’ll take the bus.”
The lean man left, and I stood before the desk.
“Why not sit down?”
“OK, I will sit down.”
I took off my bag and sat on the cushioned bench before his desk. His eyes were more alert and his face less pasty. He wiped his brow with a cloth.
“There is the normal bus, or the tourist bus. The normal bus takes six and a half hours, and the tourist bus four and a half. They are three hundred or seven hundred and fifty.”
“Definitely the tourist bus.”
He tapped into his keyboard, then picked up his mobile phone.
“Just for one? You?”
I looked at the time. It was five forty five. I was going to get to Agra after all, this very day. My plans were not to be thwarted.
When he had finished on the phone he smiled at me again.
“Relax. The bus will come here.”
“And it’s direct to Agra?”
“Yes direct. Tea?”
“Do you want some tea?”
“Umm, yes. Sure.”
He stood up and walked to the top of the stairs, calling out.
“They will bring,” he said, on returning to his desk.
I paid him the money and he printed the ticket, and a couple of minutes later, a man arrived with two cups of hot, sweet, milky tea. It seemed the largest hurdle was behind me; the size of which I had not foreseen.
I decided to introduce myself properly. His name was Sharad Kumar, a name I shan’t forget in a hurry for being so curiously hospitable. We talked about my further plans, the proposed trip around Rajasthan after Agra. Again he suggested taking a private taxi to tour around the region. His offer was not dissimilar to the first one I received, only it was a hundred dollars cheaper, and I promised that I would consider it. I took his card.
The tall lean man, my second helper, returned to the office. This time he brought two Asian girls with him. I quickly moved across to the other bench so they could sit in front of his desk. They too wanted to go to Agra.
Mr Kumar introduced himself, but before he could address their needs, his phone rang, so it was I who explained about the trains and buses. Julie was Chinese Canadian, whilst Naoko was from Japan. It wasn’t long before they were booked on the same bus as myself. Just in time for its arrival.
We sat waiting in the office and I chatted to the two girls. I was exhausted, but had passed my lowest point and felt stronger knowing I would have comrades on this journey. Julie had been travelling in India for a month already and would be a very useful ally. Naoko had just flown in that morning, and it was equally comforting to have another noob with which to share my general culture shock and astonishment.
When we stepped out into the street, dawn had already come. The sun hung under an overpass at the end of the street like a polished gong, its outline visibly distinct with the smog to cushion the glare. What it illuminated was even more chaotic than what had been visible in the dark, if less threatening with the addition of colour. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro often seemed stripped of menace, though we know that behind it lay swordplay and vendettas.
I was surprised to see a camel pulling a cart, cows grazing the rubbish heaps, men so lean and small beneath heavy burdens. The road was a mere remnant of itself, kept flat by the constant steamroller of traffic. I stopped to take a photograph and the girls got ahead of me, so I followed their backpacks up the street. We walked under the footbridge, past roadside stalls, beggars and rickshaws. Around the corner was a stretch of ruined buildings; like war damage. Walls had collapsed, roofs caved in, and the piles of bricks spilled down into the street. It seemed these tall, jagged, irregular buildings were still inhabited.
Everything was fascinating to me. I thought, having been to Cambodia and Vietnam, that I was prepared for anything India could offer; yet this seemed to go far beyond it somehow. It must be the scale, I thought; the sheer number of people, the great burden, the pressure on everything. How else could a city, not currently at war, be so derelict? Then again, I reminded myself, this was the train station, and major train stations the world over are often in pretty run-down locales. Was not Piazza Garibaldi in Naples something of a mess? Was not Kings Cross in London surrounded by bleak concrete grime? Yet nowhere, surely, that I could recall, was as battered and wasted as this.
We walked past the rubble, skipped over the potholes. People called on either side.
“Hey, Hello, sir!” but we were on a mission and nothing was going to slow me down. I nodded, smiled, waved.
A hundred metres down the street we reached the bus. It was a battered old thing with patched Perspex windows and the back bumper tied to the chassis. So long as it drove, I wasn’t too fussed. We stepped through the doors and were sent to the back, to a long, deep bench seat. It was dirty and sticky, but it looked very comfortable. I thought I was fortunate in getting a window seat in the corner, and opened it wide to look out at the rubble across the street.
At last! I was on a bus for Agra. Again, I reflected on my victory over the liars and cheats. My mission was still on track. I’d expected to be on a 0630 train, but a 0630 bus would do fine. The sunrise shone orange through the back window. I smiled into it and forced a positive frame of mind. Delhi was always going to be the worst, I told myself. Everything else will be easier, more cool, more shanti. I’ve never liked big cities; especially not polluted, heaving, overpopulated ones. India had given me a shock, but so had Rome when first I stepped out there; so had Bratislava; so had Sarajevo, so had Hanoi.
The bus began to drive, and I smiled across to the two girls who had come aboard with me.
“This is comfortable enough,” said Julie.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
After a few hundred metres the bus stopped in heavy traffic, and more people were brought on board. Three people, who looked European, were led to the very back bench on which we were sitting. It was, at a stretch, designed to seat five. They were crammed in between us. I pressed myself into the corner, my bag lifted up onto my lap. Now things were very far from being comfortable. Inwardly I groaned. Oh god, just get me there! Now the five hours struck me as being a very long time. I wondered if we would in fact arrive in five hours. Would there be delays?
I introduced myself to the chap next to me. He was a young, short, blonde guy with an angular face and pointed jaw.
“I am Alex,” he said. “Russian.”
The bus, however, was going nowhere. We sat and grew increasingly uncomfortable on that back bench for the next half hour. I passed the time watching Indians at work through the window. One young man had been sleeping on top of his truck. He woke up and leaned over to chat to his friends or colleagues below. An old man walked by, carrying a staff and a small metal pail. Stretched above and hanging low, a jumble of wires. Behind it all, dirty shops with faded posters, roller doors, hand-painted advertisements, flaked and darkened with soot. All about, horns sounded, scooters, rickshaws, cars and buses wove in a slow mess.
Then, at last, we started to move through the traffic. I was already in great discomfort. Having had no sleep or food and being already physically and mentally exhausted made it difficult to marshal good spirits. I tried as best as I could, but my legs were stiff and cramped and the bag on my knees was very heavy.
On we drove, down the dirty road. Never in my life had I seen such poverty; people as black as soot, with matted hair, lying in dirt by the road, begging from hell knows who; children, naked in piles of refuse; men, lean and greased, dressed only in loin-cloths, working with rusty car parts. We drove past shanties, slums, past plastic-sheet and cardboard dwellings, cripples crawling to vehicles at the traffic lights.
Where was the fabled middle class? Where was all the new money? The whole length of the road, through the first four hours of driving, seemed lined only with the poor, rubbing shoulders with the desperately poor. How anyone made any money from the few things they had to offer, with so many seeming thousands offering exactly the same, was beyond me. And perhaps that was exactly it. No one wanted what they sold, and so they made no money, but there was nothing else for them at all. And those with the stalls were the lucky ones. Still, this was a major road leading out of town, not a fashionable new suburb, and it was likely offering a particular view; the lower caste, working class side of town. Perhaps soon my eyes would adjust and I would see things differently. The people did not all look unhappy, and many were impeccably groomed, if clearly not wealthy. And of course! The middle class were tucked away in the other cars on the road.
I realised what I should have realised earlier. That the poverty in India was far worse than I had ever imagined; that despite having heard often, and seen on television, stories of the poor and desperate, I had never in my life imagined it to be on such a grand scale. How could so many people be so utterly destitute? How could this road, which ran for mile after mile, be lined with such terrible despair? As yet I had not understood. I had been in shock, I had my own concerns. I was searching for an escape, for an exit, for a long ride away from the things that upset me, towards something more beautiful, more clean. But I realised now that my own concerns were terribly petty. There was nothing I had to face that came close to the abject nature of some of these people’s lives, nor would there ever be. I was Australian and even the worst-off and most neglected people in my country could seek help and redress; it was there for them in some form; and certainly more so than it seemed to be here. I could always escape, indeed, I was always escaping. But these people would never escape. They were trapped in poverty for ever; for some, it was on the cruellest, most persistent, most hellishly relentless scale.
I straightened up in my chair. I was awfully uncomfortable, exhausted. The young Russian’s head was banging against my shoulder. He’d fallen asleep again. So long as he did not drool, then I had no problem. I adjusted my nuts. I stretched my back and shoulders, then pushed up and re-seated myself. It did not matter that I was hot, sweaty, sticky, sore, stiff, hungry and needing the toilet. It did not matter that I must spend the next four hours stuck in this same cramped position, the underside of the footrest cutting into my leg, bottom aching. The truth was that in a few hours I’d be in a shower, in a hotel, with a clean bed to lie on and plenty of money to spend on food. I was rich. Richer than a hundred of these people put together. I was the raja, and so I should bloody well stop thinking about myself as though I were in some way unfortunate to be cramped in the back of this shabby bus. The truth was that I had it all, and the poor bloody Indians outside my window didn’t have a goddamned thing. How awful it was that I would soon try to put them from my mind and enjoy myself.