$top_url = array ("index.php", "writing.php"); $top_title = array ("home", "writing", "India : November 2001"); $prev_page = "india2.php"; $next_page = "contact.php"; include ("header.php"); ?>
Note: the "India" series of essays originally began as emails to my friends back home, while I was working for Balkrishna Doshi in Ahmedabad. My father did some slight editing of these pieces.|
Ahmedabad, Delhi, Junagadh, November 2, 2001. The true seekerI have at last begun to broaden my exploration of India. In the uncertain weeks after September 11th I wanted to stay close to home, in familiar territory. But uncertainty, it seems, is here to stay -- and the world hasn't gotten any less interesting in the meantime. Realizing that the only thing I ought to fear is fear itself, I've elected to not let the world's fuming ambiguity constrain me any further. So I've been exploring
One Thursday evening, my three roommates board a train to Delhi, to do a bit of sight-seeing. I myself stay behind for an extra day, as work at the office has become particularly intense. Finishing my work late on Friday afternoon, I hurry to the train station, which is on the far side of town. The rickshaw ride is as life-threatening as usual, with the centerline of the road being a matter of ongoing negotiation between the two opposing streams of traffic. At one point a kink develops, causing the two lanes actually switch places, and for a while we are somehow driving on the right side of the road while the opposing traffic is perplexingly on our left.
Half an hour later I arrive at the Ahmedabad train station, which is a sight to behold. It is a frenetic cross-section of India: turban-wearing buffalo herders smoking noxious beedi cigarettes, regally-coifed Punjabi families tailed by scores of red-clothed coolies struggling beneath huge trunks of luggage; children selling chapattis, war veterans looking for handouts, hawkers of every conceivable kind of goods or service, dogs humping on the departure platforms, hurried-looking businessmen in business suits, relaxed-looking programmers talking in C++, saffron-robed priests muttering vague curses or benedictions, veiled women whispering among themselves and laughing at unknown jokes, portly bureaucrats twirling their mustaches, sharp-tongued matrons chastising their servants, uniformed guards using their wooden bolt-action rifles as walking sticks, cows foraging for garbage beside the tracks.
Boarding the Ashram Express to Delhi, I soon locate my berth. It’s in a sleeper car, third class, no A/C. Hawkers run up and down the aisle, selling bottled water, candy, bread, soup, coffee, cigarette paper, tea. Their cries are in high, fast, nasal monotones: "Chai! Chaiaiai! ChaiChaiChaiChaiChaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiaiAI!"
Beggars wander up and down the train, or outside on the platform, rapping on the windows and demanding money. I ignore most of them. The children particularly vex me, for I soon begin to recognize the eager expression on their faces as nothing less than naked greed. The amounts of money they ask for are exorbitant: "100 rupees mister, please mister, only 100 rupees…" They actually expect some stupid Sahib to cough up the dough; perhaps a naïve white boy like me who won't know that 100 rupees would let them eat like kings for a week. And I also have begun to realize that -- in the city, anyway -- there is absolutely no need for any able-bodied person to be begging. India's cities are awash in things to profitably do: there are errands to be run, trinkets to be sold, ditches to be dug, and filled, and dug back up again, vegetables to be washed, recyclables to be collected, dirt to be dusted, rickshaws to be ricocheted, camels to be cowed, wool to be woven, walls to be painted, haystacks to be examined for needles. I often see children doing this work, and while there is something sad about that, I find it much less disturbing than the begging. Although the adult errand-runners and ditch-diggers live hard and sweaty lives, they also have a vitality to them as they shout and joke and whistle amongst each other. They seem vibrantly human in a way that the beggars don't. Whereas child beggars are essentially selling cuteness, adult beggars can only sell desperation. If they shout or joke or whistle, nobody will give them money. So they must tug at your clothes, whining, pointing insistently at their gaping mouths, as mindless and relentless as hatchling birds. The implication is that without your generosity, they will surely die of starvation. Which is plain bullshit. The quickest way to get rid of them is to try giving them food you happen to posses, then watch as they hiss disgustedly at you and stalk away. They don’t want food -- they want money.
Outside of the cities, the situation may well be different. Rural villagers in Orissa are genuinely starving, denied their government-issued staples by corrupt middlemen; diarrhea is killing 90,000 children each year, mineral deficiencies are rampant everywhere -- but losing your cash to some kid at an urban train station won't help any of that. Looking at the eager, greedy faces of the children rapping relentlessly on my carriage window, I realize that I would be doing them a tremendous disservice by giving them a handout: I would be encouraging them to make a permanent (and unnecessary) career out of self-degradation. And so I coldly turn my back on them.
These less-than-charitable thoughts are interrupted by a bearded old man crawling down the aisle of the train, on his hands and knees. Below the knees, something has gone terribly wrong with his legs; some disease or genetic defect has bent them horribly awry, and they look like pale, wilted stalks of celery. In his right hand, he carries a tin cup with change in it, which jingles as he crawls slowly forward. Here, I realize, is someone who truly needs to be begging, someone who cannot be running errands or digging ditches. But in no way is he pathetic or degraded. He does not whine and point at his mouth; indeed, he does not ask for anything at all. When our eyes meet, I see a quiet strength and dignity in them, and empty my pockets into his cup. He inclines his head to me and says shukriya, "thank you," in a deep, resonant voice. Namaste ji, I reply, and he continues to crawl down the aisle of the train.
Right on schedule, the Ashram Express rolls out of the station. Against all my expectations, it seems that the trains in India are fastidiously punctual. It is surprisingly smooth, too, as we slowly accelerate out of the city. The sun is setting over Ahmedabad, a dull red orb swathed in veils of smoke, as we speed northwest. Soon the tracks are surrounded by meager forests which appear to have been thoroughly scavenged for firewood. In the darkening evening, I watch the forest grow thicker, the inhabitation become sparser, until soon we are sliding through the silhouettes of a primeval, vine-clad jungle. Light from our train occasionally pierces through the darkness, briefly illuminating foraging tribesmen and herds of pigs, who both ignore our clattering passage.
The fast train to Delhi takes 17 hours, so that I have much time after I wake before the rendezvous with my roommates. The countryside scrolling by is now continuously agricultural, a jigsaw puzzle of amoeba-shaped plots.
Laying in my upper bunk, I take out my notebook and begin to write, while a flock of children below me sing round after round of schoolgirl rhymes. The cadences are exactly the same as schoolgirl rhymes from anywhere: NAA nana Naa naa, Na, Na, Na! NAnanana NAA nana, NA! NA! NA! While I type, I wonder if these sort of rhythms are built into the female species, in the way that migration patterns are built into butterflies.
When I step out onto the platform at Delhi station -- we arrive right on time -- my first impression is of choking pollution: if the air in Ahmedabad is bad, the air in Delhi is truly apocalyptic. Visibility is perhaps a few hundred meters; the people at the far end of the platform look like ghosts jostling through a bank of fog. The crowd on the platform is enormous -- tens of thousands of people jumping on and off the trains at breakneck speed. Yet the horde is somehow more organized, in its way, than the one at Ahmedabad -- and distinctly more cosmopolitan in its attitude. I see faces from every part of the globe: dreadlocked Europian backpackers and hurried Japanese businessmen, not drawing any particular notice as they thread their way through the crowd.
My roommates -- Jean-Lou, Joanne, and Josianne -- locate me within a few minutes, for despite the multitude's diversity, I'm still one of the tallest people on the platform. We make our way out of the station with some difficulty, for the density and ferocity of the Delhi traffic seems to parallel the density and ferocity of its air. Curiously, there seem to be a tremendous number of bicycle-rickshaws in Delhi, something I've never seen in Ahmedabad. There are numerous auto-rickshaws as well, slightly larger than their cousins in Ahmedabad, running on Compressed Natural Gas rather than petroleum, and even equipped with mufflers. All of which does absolutely nothing, apparently, to diminish the air or noise pollution.
The four of us grab a brunch of dosas at a small greasy-spoon, and then walk over to the Jamma Masjid, an enormous 17th-century Mughal mosque, crafted from marble and sandstone. "If anyone asks," says Jean-Lou, "tell them you're Russian. You'll seem more politically neutral, and they won't even bother with trying to get money out of you." But although the Imam of the mosque has recently been issuing anti-American proclamations, nobody here seems particularly concerned about politics or money. They do, however, insist on covering Josianne's bare shoulders with a shawl.
On the far side of the mosque -- facing away from Mecca -- a mighty pair of wooden doors open up onto a spectacular vista of promenades, gardens, lotus-ponds, and Delhi's colossal Red Fort. Or rather, they would open up onto a spectacular vista, were the air not completely opaque. As it is, we are treated to a fantastic view of several tons of vehicular hydrocarbons and trash-fire particulates. "Wow… that is really, truly, gray…" I wheeze, squinting at the featureless wall of smog, and then sneeze into my handkerchief, which comes away black.
"This pollution, I can't believe it!" says a frustrated Jean-Lou. "For six months I lived in Delhi, and never once was it this bad!"
Feeling grubby and sniffly, we make our way to the Hotel Namaskar, where the three of them have rented a room. It's in an interesting neighborhood, which has been overrun with westerners but has stubbornly refused to surrender its native bohemian character. After more than six weeks in Ahmedabad, I find it strange to see so many tall, pale people on the street. These are not tourists, but travelers like myself -- people who are seeking the authentic India; people who would flee from any place that offered "all the comforts of home." During our brief stay in Delhi, we see many of these folks, but do not try to interact with any of them, nor they with us. We all came here to be in India, not to chat with people from New Jersey. (A handful of crystal-studded middle-aged women, apparently following in Shirley MacLaine's footsteps, are being quickly shepherded around by overly-solicitous guides).
I drop my bags at the hotel, take a cold shower, and then the four of us haggle with a gaggle of rickshaw drivers. The rickshaw drivers in Delhi, unlike in Ahmedabad, are a greedy and devious lot. I suspect that it is only after Jean-Lou has begun to demonstrate his impressive command of Hindi obscenities that we are finally quoted a reasonable price. Our destination is the Qutb Minar, which is 900 years old and 73 meters high, and is still the tallest stone minar in the world. (A "minar" is a Muslim prayer tower, just like a minaret -- except that there's nothing "et" about it). It stands amidst a picturesque tumble of old Muslim architecture -- arcades, colonnades, domes, tombs, intricate stone screens. Every available surface is covered in gorgeously flowing inscriptions, and I find myself wishing, hardly for the first time, that I could read Arabic script.
Apparently the emperor who commissioned the Qutb minar was something of a madman. He apparently decided, before the first one was finished, that he wanted to build another one which would be twice as high. Roughly as high, in other words, as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Structurally, it would never have worked, and when he died a few years later the nervous workmen quickly abandoned the project. As I walk around the massive stump that they had completed -- 25 meters wide, 38 meters high -- I remember the insane excesses of Nero's house in Rome, and wonder if artists haven't been getting a bad rap for millennia. Isn't it really the art patrons who've been the crazy ones all along?
At sunset -- made all the more spectacular by the glowing curtains of smog -- we are shooed away from the ruins, and take a claustrophobic bus back to our hotel. Jean-Lou, Josianne, and Joanne decide to strike out for a fancy dinner at a hotel, while I opt for an early bedtime. Which, thanks to the words cascading through my head, I totally fail to achieve. The whirling bustle of India has utterly mesmerized me, and not a hour passes when I don't feel a pang of regret over the demise of my camera. Since I am unable to photograph what I see, I find myself compulsively writing about it, skimping on meals and sleep for the sake of weaving words. When my roommates return from their swanky dinner, late in the evening, they find me furiously typing away, and laugh at my notion of an "early bedtime" until I sheepishly put the computer away.
I'm writing this two weeks later, trying to remember what we did that Sunday. The itinerary is in my head, but the textures and smells have already faded away; too many experiences have already intervened since then. I remember that we visited a monumental government-run crafts store; I remember seeing the cover of "India Today" at a newsstand: a nuclear missile hurling towards the flag of Pakistan, with the headline "SHOULD INDIA ATTACK?" emblazoned in red letters across the top. I remember my answer to that question, muttered beneath my breath: "yeah sure, you unbelievable fucking morons, that'll help a lot." I remember visiting an old friend of Jean-Lou's at his fantastically opulent mansion in South Delhi. I remember a frantic taxi-ride back to the South Delhi train station. I remember arriving in Ahmedabad at 8 AM with a terrible head-cold.
But the moment has passed and we can never remember everything. The slippage of time is inevitable; even as I sit typing right now, trying to set something down, trying to anchor a moment against the flow of time, I know that the effort is futile. For every experience that I record, hunched over my computer, I must forgo ten other experiences. For every texture and color and smell that I try to describe, I discover a hundred more that I don't have the words for. Perhaps I should stop trying to look so hard, perhaps I should smear ash on my forehead and live in a cave, chanting the sutras while staring blankly at the sky. Perhaps I should just let myself be mesmerized. It's all Sun-Faced Buddha and Moon-Faced Buddha, right?
Today's news on page one: Pak massing troops on the border! Today's news on page eight: Don't worry, we massed ours first! Today's news on the net: Terrorists planning to sink California into the Pacific! Today's thought in my head: screw them all. Screw Pakistan and India and terrorists and California and screw Moon-Faced Buddha and Sun-Faced Buddha too.
I stare at the computer screen, trying to think of a way to make sense of something. Of anything. But I can't. It's all too vast, and too minutely detailed. My writing manages to simultaneously embrace nothing and escape from nothing. But it's what I know how to do.
I'll continue to write.
The following Friday evening, we board yet another train. This time we are heading towards the blunt Kathiwar peninsula southwest of Ahmedabad, which is a region known as Saurashtra. This area was never part of British India; prior to consolidation in 1946, it had been a chaotic patchwork of over 200 kingdoms, each no bigger than a few dozen square kilometers. Saurashtra's population is largely rural, and its landscape predominantly flat. But there are some renowned monuments and wildlife sanctuaries here, and a handful of mountains thrusting eccentrically through the plains.
The chaotic ambiance of the Ahmedabad train station is now enhanced by the addition of a corpse laying on the steps, surrounded by garlands of flowers and burning cones of incense. A white sheet is pulled tautly around it, rendering the body invisible -- there's no way to tell if its former occupant was old or young, male or female. It's just an anonymous body now, awaiting transportation to the next life. The bustling crowd steers around it obliviously.
Our coach tonight is somewhat narrower and considerably slower than the one to Delhi, for it runs on a track that is only one meter wide. (The British built railways with mad abandon all over the subcontinent, but strangely could never seem to agree on what gauge of track to employ. Today, there are three different standards that are still in use, with meter-gauge being the mid-sized one.) As the train pulls out of the station, I climb into my bunk and watch the ripening moon outside my window. The rocking of the train soon lulls me to sleep.
In the morning, we arrive in the groggy town of Veraval, and haggle with a rickshaw driver for transportation to Somnath temple. The rickshaws in Saurashtra are decorated somewhat differently from the ones in Ahmedabad. In both cases, their primary ornamentation are oversized, garishly-painted mudflaps. In Ahmedabad, the paintings are almost exclusively of Bollywood action heroes brandishing oversized guns or knives, looking like Rambo meets El Mariachi meets the Insane Clown Posse. But in Saurashtra, the paintings are almost exclusively of women, who look oddly like characters from any medieval-themed Japanimation.
Settling on a price, we all climb into the little rickshaw, which sinks to the ground beneath our combined weight. As we scrape our way towards Somnath, we pass by reeking boatyards that house an enormous fishing fleet, rocking slowly in a fetid, magenta-colored harbor. Beyond this, there are vast graveyards, with ziggurat-shaped tombstones as far as the eye can see. Some of these are thousands of years old, and have worn down to smooth, anonymous lumps of granite on the landscape. Like the sacred city of Benares on the Ganges river, Somnath is considered an auspicious place to die, for this is where Lord Krishna "chose to end his earthly incarnation, and take up his permanent abode in the heavens," as one local guidebook says. Meanwhile, the Somnath Temple that we are headed towards is even older than that, having been fashioned out of gold by the Moon God during the creation of the world. Unfortunately, since then it has been repeatedly razed by jealous rivals, first in the form of other Gods, and then in the form of various Muslim conquerors. The most recent razing was perpetrated by a pissed-off Mughal emperor in the 18th century, and the temple was not rebuilt again until 1950.
The temple turns out to be located on a lonely windswept bluff above the Arabian sea. Despite its great renown, I find myself somewhat let down by it -- it is beautiful, but disappointingly crisp. I find myself missing the pilgrim-worn steps, the rocks polished by centuries of reverent caresses, the affectionate patina of time that seems to gather around such places.
We spend most of our time at Veraval loafing on the broad gray beach, getting sunburned on the shores of the Arabian sea. A monument on the Temple's sea-wall points out that is nothing but uninterrupted ocean between here and Antarctica. Colorfully-garbed camels plod up and down the beach, carrying giggling Indian tourists. Just to the south is the rusting hulk of a beached super-tanker, apparently having chosen Somnath as the place to end its aquatic incarnation and take up a permanent abode on the earth.
We eat lunch at a delicious and inexpensive roadside café, and in the mid afternoon amble down to the local bus station. The people at the information desk only speak a language that's not English, not Hin di, not any form of Gujarati we can recognize. So we each query each of the bus drivers as they come in -- their wider travels having apparently bestowed them with a broader linguistic knowledge -- and eventually determine that one of them is going to our next destination, which is the town of Junagadh.
The ride takes several hours down bumpy country roads, and I sleep most of the way there. Dusk is approaching when we arrive in Junagadh, which is a dusty town of 300,000 people, but seems dustier and smaller. By the time we've found our hotel -- which appears to be completely empty, most tourists having fled from this part of the world -- night is upon us. We decide to retire early, for tomorrow's plans are ambitions.
We rise well before dawn. There are a myriad of things to see in Junagadh: a 19th-century zoo, established by an enlightened local nawab, and which was single-handedly responsible for saving the Asiatic Lion from extinction; an exuberant 19th-century Mausoleum; a renowned mosque built from the remains of various Hindu temples; two eerily quiet step-wells; a famous museum; an assortment of edicts inscribed in stone by the Emperor Ashoka himself; some 5th-century Buddhist cave-temples; an enormous granite fortress that dates to the 3rd century BC; and Girnar Hill, which is topped by a number of Hindu and Jain temples. It is this latter attraction that compels us to rise so early, for we want to finish the hike -- which the guidebook claims will take 2.5 hours -- well before the heat of the day. I give the guidebook a cursory glance, learning little about Girnar Hill save that there are 9,999 steps on the ascent.
I hope they're small ones.
As we are girding ourselves for the hike, Jean-Lou regretfully reports us that he will be unable to join us, as his digestive system has decided to fast-track yesterday's cuisine, and he is wary of straying too far from the toilet. So the remaining three of us step out into the dusky streets of Junagadh, which are just beginning to sputter to life. The air is decidedly chilly -- a strange and welcome sensation -- so we warm ourselves with some delicious cups of cardamom-scented Chai, before haggling with a sleepy rickshaw Walla over the price to the Girnar Hill trailhead. Eventually we settle on 30 rupees, and begin bouncing through the still-drowsy streets of Junagadh. The sides of the street (calling them "sidewalks" would be grandiose) are lined with sleeping peasants, lying beneath solitary sheets pulled taut from beneath their feet to behind their heads. Their motionless forms, anonymous and genderless, suddenly remind me of the corpse at the Ahmedabad station, minus the flowers and the incense. But these are not corpses -- here, the living are less celebrated than the dead -- and they begin to stir as our rickshaw careens cacophonously past. Looking back, I see grizzled men shaking the sleep from their eyes, even as they begin tugging the burlap covers off of their nearby fruit-carts.
The road climbs steeply, forcing our rickshaw driver to change gears furiously, and we leave the city behind. Now we are paralleling a noisy river, with the tremendous walls of the fort rising beyond. The fort appears incomprehensibly huge and solid, with its black, 20-meter-high walls jutting out of the jungle. (I later learn that in its 24 centuries of existence, the fort has been under siege 16 times -- once for 12 continuous years -- but never to any avail.) We pass a small, ancient-looking dam with lively waterfalls cutting down its face. Somewhere around here are the Ashoka edicts -- they were placed on the shore of a lake that no longer exists, but presumably once filled the valley that we are now entering into.
As we approach the gate to Girnar Hill, the road becomes crowded with cheap restaurants and hawkers, still too tired to bother us with their attentions. We disembark from our rickshaw, pay the driver, purchase some water and candy for the voyage, and briskly set out on the pathway. It is two meters wide, and constructed out of well-kept blocks of black granite. The steps begin soon enough, and to my silent discouragement, they are all even, full-height steps, 15 centimeters if they're an inch. This is going to be a long hike, I tell myself, remembering a climb of 300-something individually-numbered steps on a hillside in Heidelberg. And here there are almost ten thousand. Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety freaking nine. (Have I mentioned that India has no concept of "understatement"?) A handful of the steps are numbered, in a script I can't decipher, but all of them bear a meticulously painted Sanskrit "aum" on the left, and a dotted Hindu swastika on the right.
The path rises gently, with each handful of steps separated by several meters of gentle incline. At first I find this to be reassuring, having not yet realized that each step we take forward is a step that doesn't count. As we walk through the lightly forested landscape, which is dotted with the sleeping-cots of the trailside vendors, we are waved at by Brahmin priests tending to their various shrines, and gently interrogated by fellow hikers along the path. They are always young men, and they always ask the same two questions, of each of us in turn: "What is your name?" and "What is the name of your country?" Our answer to the latter seems to puzzle many of them, for Kannada, as they well know, is a language that is spoken in Karnataka. But their supply of English, by this point, has been exhausted, so they just smile and nod and head off on their own.
We seem to be hiking more quickly than the other travellers on the trail, but more slowly than the goods-carriers -- lanky men and women who tear up the hillside with almost frightening speed, bringing today's supplies to the many vendors that line the trail. The women always carry their loads on top of their heads, balanced with seeming effortlessness atop colorful cloth donuts. The men always carry their loads on their shoulders, stabilized with straps across their foreheads, their neck muscles bulging terribly. One young man struggles past us with a 55-gallon drum across his shoulders, his head cocked Atlas-like beneath it. I sincerely hope that the drum is empty, but somehow have my doubts.
When we have walked for about a kilometer -- and have climbed perhaps 300 meters, or 2,000 steps -- we round a flank of the hillside, and finally can the main bulk of Girnar hill, looming above us. It is a massive bulge of sheer-faced granite, studded with temples half a kilometer above us.. "Oh good," I say, "It gets steeper!" We stop for a while to catch our breath, and to purchase some water and soda from an eager vendor.
When we begin hiking again, the pace is decidedly harder -- the trail is now an almost continual staircase, with numerous switchbacks as we approach the looming cliff-face. The day is now becoming quite hot, and we have to rest frequently. As we climb ever higher, the broad landscape of the Saurashtra Plain begin to unfold itself, the horizon receeding farther and farther, until it is lost in the hazy atmosphere. The surrounding land seems to be completely flat, with the area inscribing Girnar Hill being an incongruous volcanic extrusion. Curiously, the entire formation appears to be perfectly circular, and Girnar Hill is at the center of it.
Now we have climbed another 300 meters, and have met the cliff-face head-on. The pathway runs parallel to it for a while, until it meets a dent in the rocks where a staircase can gain purchase, and then it climbs madly upwards. Although we are perched hudreds of meters above the ground, there is no feeling of insecurity, for the construction is extremely broad and solid. There's even a sturdy stone guardrail, which we now take liberal advantage of, as our legs have begun to tire. Finally, the foundations of the temples re-appear directly above us, clinging precariously to the rock-face. Baby monkeys scramble across their masonry surfaces, dodging in and out of small wind-carved pockets in the rock.
Finally a wall with a small arched opening appears high above us, directly in our path: the entrance to the temple complex. Only 100 more steps to go. We exhaustedly traipse onwards, but are gratefully waylaid by an eager young vendor, whose offer of food and drink is too tempting to pass up. The young man turns out to be something of a character -- he is dressed impecabbly in western hipster garb, and one of my companions whispers that he looks something like a post-African, pre-Caucasian Michael Jackson. This impression is reinforced when he abruptly spins on his heels, slaps a tape into a stereo, and begins dancing and singing to impressively-loud Hindi techno-pop. Apparently he's concealed speakers all over his staked-out patch of the landscape. We rest for a long time in the shade of his stand, chuckling good-naturedly at his antics, and then decide that since we've come all this way, we might as well climb the last 50 steps to the temples.
It turns out to be worth it. The top of the mountain is crowded with an amazing assortment of magnificent stone spires and domes, several of them nearly 900 years old. "I think I read," says Joanne, "that when you count the smaller shrines as well, there are around 800 temples up here." And actually, it isn't hard to believe -- the smaller shrines are everywhere, with their orange sandalwood-pasted idols peering out of tiny, garland-strewn grottos. But the whistle of admiration suddenly dies on my lips, replaced by a dismayed curse.
"Oh bloody hell," I mutter, dumbfounded.
"What?" ask my companions, looking back at me, and I point wordlessly up toward the peaks of two of the larger temples. There, between the spires, I have caught a glimpse of the real top of Girnar Hill, a sharply pyramidal mountain that has hitherto been hidden by the broad shoulder on which we now stand. The actual summit is still another 200 meters above us.
"Aww, damn." They say in unison.
We wander around the temples for a while, mulling over our options. The complex is strangely quiet, almost totally devoid of people. We encounter only one old priest, who asks us (in sign language) for a pen, and when we don't have that, for a cigarette lighter. Dissapointed on both counts, he says Namaste, and returns to sweeping his small temple's steps. Meanwhile the real summit of Girnar Hill hovers tauntingly overhead, as if daring our wobbly legs to go ahead and climb it. Finally we say screw it, you only live once, and acquiese to the challenge. Why should we let a measly 1,300 steps get the better than us?
The staircase now feels brutally steep, with landings few and far between. We must look like an awfully sorry sight as we drag ourselves upwards, pulling on the concrete railing to relieve the strain on our legs, stopping every couple hundred steps to rub our aching calves. I can hear the lowing of cows above us, and marvel at the sheer temerity of whoever managed to drag them up this insane staircase. Finally we reach the summit, and are greeted by an old medium-sized temple, covered in a recently applied mosaic of white broken tiles, accompanied by a handful of smaller temples and shrines, a couple of cows, and -- "Oh crap," we say in unison.
There's yet another peak ahead of us, studded with tiny temples. The trail gently descends perhaps 50 meters, and then runs horizontally along a knife-edge ridge, before climbing the 100 meters to the final peak, which is an absurdly narrow pinnacle of granite. The slope is so steep that the mountain almost seems to be unmoored from the earth, while the sparse vegetation clinging tenaciously to its sides reminds me of a Chinese landscape painting.
The three of us retire to a chai-stand behind one of the temples, sipping the hot drink and contemplating the trail ahead of us. There's really no question that we will complete this final leg of the hike -- it's such a short distance, and we've come so far already… so when we set out again, our steps are eager and springy, despite the growing agony in our legs. We race up the final stairs without pause, and when we finally reach the top, all we can do is sit down on the rocks and laugh with ragged, barely contained hysteria, because there's still another peak ahead of us! It isn't any higher than our current one, and isn't topped by any temples. There is only a small circular courtyard, enclosing a large bell that pilgrims are ringing as they reach it. As the crow flies, the couryard is no more than 100 meters away -- but rests atop a sheer needle of rock, cut off from us by a chasm that's around 200 or 300 meters deep. The staircase plunges sharply and is quickly lost to view below us. We can't even see it across the chasm, and presume that it must somehow climb the far side of the granitic spire. Realizing that there are still another 3000 steps to go, we can do nothing for a while but sit and ache and laugh asthmatically, while the intermittent ringing of the bell mocks us with its unreachable nearness.
"Why can't they just build a bridge?" exclaims Josianne, when she is finally able to catch her breath, and each of us take turns venting.
"I actually think I could make it there," I say, "but then it'd be game over for my legs, and there's no way I'd make it off the mountain. What they ought to do is string a rope up there, so you can ride a basket down to the bottom, like Indiana Jones." Seeking shade beneath some nearby boulders, we continue to spin rationalizations for why we're not going to climb the last peak. "At least I hope it's the last peak," I say, "because if there's still another one lurking behind there, then I don't even want to know about it!"
Suddenly an out-of-breath Jean-Lou appears on the summit, takes one look at the far pinnacle, and curses in his thick Quebequois accent: "Oh, what a bitch!"
"Jean-Lou!" cries Josianne, "What are you doing here?"
Jean-Lou explains that his intestines began feeling dramatically better about an hour after we left, and so he's been racing up the hill ever since. When polled on whether we should attempt the final ascent, he responds with an emphatic "fuck no, not before breakfast!" which seems to settle the matter. The four of us turn around and begin heading down the mountain.
When we reach the main complex of temples, we decide to explore them a bit more thoroughly, as Jean-Lou had ignored them completely on his hurried ascent. Some of the temples are truly magnificent, and I realize that my eye is finally becoming attuned to the alien harmonies of the religious architecture here. The sharply peaked domes above the innermost sanctums seem to obey a perfect fractal logic, with sub-domes and sub-sub-domes creating a composition that is at once both completely integral and infinitely differentiated, like a Sierpinski Gasket. The overall shape, Jean-Lou tells me, is supposed to make reference to Mt. Kailash in Himalchal Pradesh,where Lord Shiva is reputed to dwell (it's not the same as the Tibetan Mt. Kailash, which is better known in the West).
One of the oldest temples is particularly magnificent, for the lower walls are covered in an intricate latticework of carved stone, each sub-section containing a unique and often surprising pattern, and the cornice is supported by a legion of dancing Goddesses. Moreover, the whole thing appears to be monolithic -- carved out of a single stone -- for I am unable to find a joint anywhere. As I scrutinize the unbelievable craftsmanship, baby monkeys scamper on the eaves of the roof and chitter merrily at me.
We decide to rest for a while in the courtyard surrounding the temple, beneath a shady broad-leafed tree where an old guard with a large nightstick is already drowsing. As we sit and nibble on glucose crackers, an old grandma monkey appears from behind the temple, and begins sauntering towards us. This makes Josianne nervous. She has had an awkward relationship with the wildlife here, having already been jumped on by a monkey, bitten by a dog, and nearly gored by a cow. All the animals I've encountered have been so entirely mellow that I find her experiences difficult to comprehend -- but in any case, she now thoroughly distrusts the local fauna. "You have to watch out for these monkeys" she says warily, "they'll do anything to try to get your food." But grandma monkey just vaults into the tree above us, and seems to settle down for her mid-day siesta.
They're thinking strategically!\" There are now more than a dozen monkeys tightening their net around us…");?> A few minutes later, a much larger male monkey, his tail curled proudly above his head, ambles casually over to the only exit of the courtyard, sits down, and begins picking his teeth, seeming to take no notice of us at all.
One at a time, other monkeys nonchalantly stroll into the court, and begin taking sudden interests in the bugs on the ground, which are apparently distributed in a wide circle surrounding our tree. But this circle, I notice, is slowly, almost imperceptibly, getting smaller.
"Uh…" says Josianne, backing up against the tree.
I'm inclined to agree. "My God," I say in admiration, "they've taken up positions. They're thinking strategically!" There are now more than a dozen monkeys tightening their net around us, and the big one stationed by the exit is no longer feigning disinterest. Grandma monkey above us seems to be wide awake now, and I half wonder if she's been directing the whole operation with silent hand-signals, like a SWAT commander. With a sudden shock of bemused fear, I realize that we've been both outnumbered and outstrategized, and I have no idea how we're going to escape. Perhaps if we scatter the remaining crackers away from the exit, we can create enough of a distraction to make a run for it…
Just then, the sleeping guard, whom I'd quite forgotten, awakens. Noticing our predicament, he draws his nightstick and begins furiously thwacking it on the ground, yelling all the while. The smaller monkeys scatter immediately, but the alpha male holds his ground for several seconds, his thoughts as plain as day: "No! This isn't right! We'd planned everything perfectly!" But then he decides that the human's superior weaponry must triumph, just this once, over the simian's superior strategy. He bounds away from his emplacement, and as we hurry out of the courtyard, turns and makes a rude hand gesture at us, baring his teeth.
"Yeah, yeah," I shout back at him, "Life ain't fair, buddy. Deal with it!"
We wander around the temples for a few more minutes, but our legs are becoming increasingly unsteady beneath us, and we're still more than 5,000 steps away from the bottom. So we decide to make the descent as quickly as possible, before we lose the use of our legs altogether. Walking back down the stark face of the cliff, we pass an ascending column of saffron-robed priests with radios on their shoulders, the nasal voices of Hindi newscasters echoing off the rocks: "…garble garble Taliban garble garble Pakistan garble garble Musharraf garble garble Vajpayee garble garble Afganistan garble garble terrorism garble garble Tony Blaire garble garble …"
By the time we reach the bottom, our supposedly 2 ½ hour hike, which we didn't even complete, has taken nearly seven hours. Jean-Lou threatens to write to the Lonely Planet and tell them about it. Reflecting on the fact that there is still a mausoleum, a mosque, an ancient fort, the Ashokan inscriptions, a zoo, some step-wells, and some Buddhist caves on the agenda, I make a motion that we forget about all of that, and endeavor to do absolutely nothing for the remainder of the day. "All in favor, say 'Aye'!" And with four very exhausted yet emphatic 'Aye's,' we all go back to our hotel and collapse.
But our desire to do nothing, alas, is not to be. At 9:20 in the evening we are supposed to take a sleeper train to Ahmedabad, but upon reaching the station, cannot find our names on the reservation list. The details of the screw-up are too Byzantine to describe here, and take over an hour of fighting with the station's staff to work out. At first Jean-Lou and Josianne do most of the negotiations with the unflappable employees, who gently suggest that some well-placed bribes might secure us a place on the train. The Canadians will have none of this, however, and after a while Jean-Lou takes me aside and asks for help. Thereafter, Josianne and I play tag-team: she's the feisty, noisy, frenetic one, while I'm the silent square-jawed glaring hulking bastard who has to duck beneath doorways as we're shuffled from one bureaucrat to the next, looking angrier all the time. After a while, this routine clearly begins to unnerve the officials, who eventually concede that the bribes they'd been hinting at would have been futile anyways, because there's really, truly, no space on the train.
Right on schedule, the train rumbles into the station, and then rumbles out again, without us. The next train to Ahmedabad comes in 24 hours and is already booked. So we're stranded.
Walking slowly and painfully through the blowing dust of Junagadh, we come across a stand for a private bus company. We're in luck: there's an 11:30 bus to Ahmedabad with exactly four seats left. Since it's a deluxe bus, we have to shell out nearly $2.50 apiece for tickets. I'm never really sure what "deluxe" signifies in India. After three hours of waiting in an Internet café and a nearby chai stand, I find out: it's a perfectly clean and modern European-style bus, with slightly smaller seats, driven by a close relative of Warner Brother's Tasmanian Devil. At least this is what I am forced to conclude, for as the bus tears out of Junagadh, its driver pays not the slightest heed to the presence of speed bumps, potholes, lanes, other vehicles (aside from the massive goods trucks), or indeed to the road itself. From my seat at the back of the bus, I watch the centerline careen madly back and forth in the front window; and several times we seem to leave the road entirely, taking 100 kph shortcuts through fields and parking lots. When we hit potholes -- and we hit them all -- the bus bucks so violently that I am bodily lifted out of my seat, then slammed back into it again.
This rodeo-like ride continues for the next six hours, precluding anything more than a semblance of sleep. But finally, we are in Ahmedabad -- exhausted, sore, and dirty -- but mostly in one piece. As we extract ourselves from our seats, Jean-Lou clutches at a cramping calve, and asks Joanne, who's taller then him, how her legs have fared. "How are my legs?" she asks, trying to massage some feeling into them, "oh, they're fine. How is my spleen is the question! Or any of my internal organs… I swear, I've never been tossed around like that in my life!"
We take two rickshaws home, speeding on empty roads through Ahmedabad's cool coyote dawn. Arriving at the apartment, I unroll the mattress in my corner of the living room, and allow my legs to finally quit working, knowing full well that I'll be walking like a crippled penguin for at least a week. Soon I begin to drift into sleep, lulled by the mournful cries of peacocks announcing the first glimmers of dawn. Half-asleep already, I hear Jean-Lou in his and Josianne's room, saying "Well, we learned one valuable lesson on this trip…."
"What's that?" I mutter towards their room.
"That ten thousand steps… it's a fucking lot of steps…" Then he is asleep. Soon I am too.
Life in Ahmedabad is the usual alchemy of the mundane:
Colgate toothpaste now comes with "Super Shakti Foaming Power". Festooned flatbed trucks rolls down the highway, mobile stages for elegant youths dancing devotionally for the Goddess of "Phillips MP3". Peanut oil is double filtered by an ISO 9002 company, making it "like the celestial Ganges river among oils". If you're planning on dying, don't forget to book your ticket to burning-ghats of Benares while you're still alive! We now interrupt your regularly-scheduled soap opera to bring you this live picture of Lord Ganesh cavorting with dancing girls. Pardon me good sir, but does this net café give special discounts to ascetics?
We are all true seekers, in the land of the Gods.