You don’t want to be in New Delhi in the summer, not if you can help it.
I learned this somewhere around the two hour mark after landing in India’s capital. The May heat had wrapped itself around me like a heavy, wool blanket the second I’d stepped outside. As I stood on the steps of the New Delhi railway station, I wondered if I could have somehow avoided this trip. Or come back in the winter or fall.
Probably not, I decided. With Indian Family, most things were nicely worded requirements. I’d ended up here precisely because of one of those. Gaurav and I had completed one year of wedded bliss, which meant we also needed to complete a pilgrimage as a married couple.
The pilgrimage would bring us good luck, or a long, happy married life, or something. The in-laws aren’t always quite clear about the why behind some religious activities, just the how.
Which is how Gaurav and I wound up outside the train station, trying to track down the rest of our family members.
A sea of yellow autos crouched in the parking lot, like beetles cowering away from the sun. Nearby, two young men broke into a vigorous and impromptu play sword fight. How they had the energy to move in this heat, I couldn’t fathom. The air was warm and heavy, and there was a slight yellow tint to the sky. This was the result of the annual loo लू, which carried in the desert dust, and settled it over the city.
I took a deep breath, coughing a bit as my lungs filled with smog, and told myself that this was what adventure tasted like.
We made our way inside the station, into the heart of human activity. It was busy. There were people sleeping on makeshift cardboard mats on the floor, using the faucets outside the restrooms to bathe, and in general contributing to the sort of crowded chaos that makes even the most mundane task in India unexpectedly exciting.
On this particular day, things were a bit more chaotic than usual. All trains heading to the eastern part of the country were stopped, due to a strike that had been going on for several days at that point. Hundreds of people were stranded at the New Delhi railway station with nowhere to go.
Still, this wouldn’t be considered an out of the ordinary situation in India. Why? Because this is a country where you make plans, and hope to keep said plans, at your own peril. In fact, Lesson Number One in India is: DON’T MAKE PLANS.
You laugh, but I’m 100% stone-cold serious. Because even something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store will involve several unplanned life-and-death, hair-raising close encounters just to get there. Don’t even get me started on what could go wrong once you arrive. The freezer might be broken that day, or they ran out of a staple food item, or the guy in front of you at checkout might decide to pay by painstakingly counting out change, one coin at a time. You just never know.
This is India. But that’s part of the wonderful draw of this country: the infinite, breathtaking possibility of a daily adventure.
Most of the stranded individuals at the train station seemed to be waiting it out with grim determination. That sort of determination that accepts hardships as a fact of life, and allows you to shrug and say It’ll happen when it happens.
Of course in India, It’ll happen when it happens usually comes after some irate Uncle has had his say, and lambasted the inappropriate parties over the delay, or trouble, or whatever has gone wrong. Lesson Number Two: ALWAYS CARRY A BIG STICK.
Of course, I’m talking about a metaphorical stick. Also, I’m not entirely sure what this lesson means, but I know it probably involves a skill or talent I completely lack.
Luckily for us, our train would be leaving on time, and no irateness would be required of the Uncles in our group. The family congregated on the platform, eager to board the overnight train to Katra where, I’d been told, we’d be taking part in some rather risky activities in the name of a religious pilgrimage. But more on that later.
Our train was a faded red beast, with gold stripes painted down the sides. It hadn’t been in commission long. In fact, just the previous year, Prime Minister Modi had flagged off the first train on her maiden journey to connect Delhi to one of India’s popular religious sites: Vaishno Devi.
Walking the crowded platform with a teeming mass of strangers felt very much like being a dumpling trapped in an overcrowded steamer. But, as I looked at the train, I felt a burst of excitement, like a whiff of fresh, cool air.
I wanted to grab a bag and shout ‘Heave-ho!’ while tossing it onboard, or start shoveling coal and whistling a conductor’s song (whatever that may be), or something else equally invigorating. Instead, I trailed along behind my Indian family as they searched out our names on the passenger lists posted by the train doors.
Not long after, I found myself seated in a 6-bed berth with three other family members. The seats faced each other and, in the night, would serve as beds. Overhead, a second tier of bunks were flattened against the wall, and could be flipped out and hooked into place. The two remaining bunks were high above us, just a few feet from the train car’s ceiling. I’d end up wedging myself into one of these, like a mole trying to work its way into a warm, dark hole, later. I just didn’t know it yet.
The rest of the family had a berth at the other end of the car, and were busy getting comfortable. Which meant that the four of us were about to have the fascinating experience of sharing our berth with two strangers.
One of these strangers made a memorable entrance by taking the seat opposite me, slipping his feet out of his sandals, and plonking them down right next to where I was sitting.
I stared at them with a vague sense of horror. They were flaking, and calloused, and…was that a wart?
Gaurav wasn’t having it. He snapped something at the man in rapid Hindi, and a moment later he lowered his feet to the floor again.
Remember what I said earlier about carrying a big stick? That was Gaurav wielding his.
At this point, Gaurav’s face had also taken on a permanent look of stress. A few days earlier, he had been waxing poetic about train travel in India, but I began to suspect that finding the poetry in our current situation would be a bit of a struggle.
Suddenly, he leaned toward me, as if about to share a secret.
“Do you have to use the bathroom?” he whispered.
“Not really,” I said.
“Force yourself to use it, first thing the train starts.”
Force myself to use it? As in, pee on a schedule? I gaped.
“The longer you wait, the filthier it’ll get,” he explained. “You won’t want to go in there tomorrow morning.”
That may have been the moment I started seriously questioning all the choices that had led me here. Or perhaps it was what happened next.
It wasn’t a minute later that I saw Gaurav eyes progress from wide, to wider, to nearly popping free from his skull like two gumballs. He was looking past me at the aisle. I turned to find a baby’s fist waving just inches from my nose. The mother was serving as a tour guide, carrying her baby up down the aisle and letting her explore.
Which is fine. I’m all for baby development through curiosity. But this particular baby was touching everything, and her skin was mottled with what looked suspiciously like chickenpox.
“Don’t touch ANYTHING,” Gaurav hissed at me. His expression veered maniacally close to what I imagine the beginnings of a mental breakdown might look like.
This is a man who worried constantly about germs, even when we lived in Singapore (which, could be argued, is one of the cleanest places on Earth). This is a man who washed his grapes thoroughly, one by one, before eating them.
Hence this is also a man who fell into the throes of a near-panic attack, induced by a single chickenpox infested baby.
I could see in Gaurav’s face that none of this was measuring up to the dreamy tales he’d told me of nostalgic train trips from his childhood.
As they say, it’s the journey, not the destination that matters. Which is something we both firmly believe to be true. But in the case of Indian train journeys…well, we discovered that you can have plenty of adventures before you even leave the station, much less venture to use the bathroom.