India is a land anointed with many myths and before touring here we were warned of pestilence, pestering and pandemonium. The Himalayas tested us but also sheltered us, however they could not hold us long before our curiosity edged us southwards to the tribal lands of Rajasthan. From Manali we cycled 220 km to Swarghat, the edge of the foothills, from where we took a taxi across the Punjabi plains to Ludhiana. It was Diwali and the streets were crammed with people buying gifts and we jumped as fire crackers exploded around our feet. The air was thick and our heads reeled after the crisp tranquility of the mountains. At the train station long lines of people pressed close, pushing us to the ticket counter where we successfully secured tickets for the night train to Ajmer.
India seemed to be on the move that night and we, with our bikes and baggage, were just another part of the spectacle. On the platform extended families sat in circles to eat their dinner from tiffin tins; a pretty smiling woman with crippled legs shuffled along the ground before swinging herself up onto a trolley for a chat with her porter friend; a group of blind men led themselves, hands on shoulders, through the crowds; a reluctant goat was dragged by his ear to an unknown destiny; and as a train pulled away strong, good-natured men ran alongside squeezing huge bundles into the goods van, fumbling to close the ready-to-burst doors.We pondered the fate of our bikes, but there was no need to worry, India does trains well. When our delayed train arrived two porters relieved us of our steads and we struggled into our 4-berth sleeping compartment with our ridiculous 11 pieces of luggage! Fireworks illuminated the world as we passed over her and we witnessed a silent Diwali from the comfort of our beds.
I was struck at how different this chaotic, utterly alive station scene was to a train journey I had made in China a few years ago, from Guangzhou to Kunming on Chinese New Year. There thousands of people, making their way home across the country for only a few days of freedom from relentless work, were herded from one waiting area to the next. There was nothing to buy, there was no colour, no festive cheer. One scene particularly haunts me – a man who had dared to stop with his bags in an unauthorized area was bellowed at through a megaphone by a female soldier who stood less than a metre away from him. He had inadvertently become an island of resistance within an otherwise cowed, compliant shoal. India is a hard place to travel, it tests your resilience and patience, and there is terrible poverty and inequality. However it is not China, where I felt the state had a stranglehold on the very souls of its people.
In Ajmer we stayed in an old haveli in a room once inhabited by Gandhi.The past lives here and ghosts share the crowded streets with the living. Every cow, every dog, every bird, every cockroach is a somebody. Some of us will become sacred and others will be riddled with mange (politicians in particular get a rum deal, reincarnated as pitiful dogs). The streets of Ajmer thronged with humanity, imagine Oxford Street on Boxing Day played out in a narrow bazar full of holy pilgrims of multiple faiths. Muslims flocked around the Sharif Dargah, a shrine to a famous Sufi saint, shoes were lost under foot and we struggled to make a path between the bodies. Crippled men, who limbs have potentially been twisted and broken by other callous men, roll back and forth on the floor calling out for Allah, I do not know if he hears them, there are so many voices.
The truth is I struggle in crowds and there are times when I feel like I will suffocate in humanity. But India has a way of pulling you back from despair. We are forever being stopped by strangers who ask politely for ‘ one pic, one Selfie’. They ask our names, our country name; we have inadvertently become ambassadors of Romania. (I’m sorry England I have jettisoned your association, it is too bloody and embarrassing, both then and now.) In the chaos smiles abound, the varied architecture showcases the work of talented craftsmen and amidst all the filth and pollution, nature somehow finds a way.