Of the many street smells of India, there is one I can’t identify. It’s a little like kissing someone who has a heavy cold – mucus and lemsip. Maybe I’ve answered my own question – maybe it’s mucus and lemons. This smell is everywhere in Agra, where we visited in the course of the obligatory trip to the Taj Mahal. Agra reminded me of a festival site at the end of a long weekend. Except there’s no-one rounding up the plastic bottles. The Taj sure is something. In fact, I find it hard to imagine anything more beautiful existing anywhere.
We hired a car and driver from Delhi to make the round trip in a day. Lots of people live at the sides of the road in homes built out of tin and timber. Some live on the central reservation. The pollution from exhaust fumes is so considerable that whenever I smoked one of my many cigarettes during the journey – every moment on Indian motorways feeling as if it could be my last – I wondered if I was actually giving my lungs a break from having to breathe the air.
Our driver was a good fella, but his limited, heavily-accented English did not play well with the incessant noise of engines and horns in the course of entering my less-than-perfect right ear. I must have said ‘say that again’ to him more than fifty times. Sometimes our conversations became so hilariously farcical that when I finally understood what he had said, I would reply, ‘You can say that again’.
We attempted a little project called ‘Get a train from New Delhi station’. It wasn’t that bad. Our second visit to NDLS was better than the first – I found the tourist information bureau – it DID exist! – found our platform and got there in plenty of time. I chatted to a guy bound for Moradhabad. He was a barber. If I understood him correctly, he is going to Russia for three months. I wished him luck with that. I have no plans to ever set foot in Russia. He told me he was Muslim and asked me what religion I was. When I told him I had no religion he looked at me as if I’d told him I could breathe underwater. I said I didn’t think there were many Muslims in India. I didn’t understand his reply, but he looked as if he was only too aware of that fact. This was the first conversation I’ve had with an Indian that didn’t result in me parting with money. It only took a week.
I’m writing this on the night train to Varanasi. This being our first of many long distance journeys by rail in India, we booked a private booth with fold-down bunks. It’s not exactly the Larium and hashish hippie trail magical mystery tour of the 60s and 70s – we watched some Family Guy on the latop and napped. We had something that was billed as tomato soup, but tasted like salty red mud. It was 20 rupees. We’ll see how that goes through the system.
There’s a hypnotic picture of a Hindu god on the wall opposite my bunk. It might be Krishna, I don’t know, but it’s surrounded by Mandalas, snakes and flowers. I chanted ‘hare krishna, hare krishna, hare hare krishna’ while staring at it. Then a fly flew into our cabin and I killed it after an epic battle. I didn’t last long as a Hare Krishna.