Subcontinental Drift: Chapter Eleven - To Shimla


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Asia » India » Himachal Pradesh » Shimla
July 17th 2008
Published: July 26th 2008
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Awaiting deprture in Bikaner...
For the next thirty hours, my only goal was to get there. Even as the bus pulled away from Jaisalmer, I hadn’t confirmed where there was. Ticketed through to my transit point of Chandigarh, I knew I would not stay long. I had some ideas, a general direction. To Amritsar in Punjab? Back through Haryana to Haridwar in Uttarakhand? Only in transit would my next resting point reveal itself to me. It would depend on connections and how easily I could manage them. I was sure it was time to go north. My big connection was back in Bikaner, home of the Chhalanis, where I would board an overnight train.
Bus personnel on the route between Jaisalmer and Bikaner spend the overnight on top of the vehicles’ roofs. Sipping my cup of morning tea at five thirty, I watch the men rise, fold up their blankets and mattresses, and go to the suspect public toilet facility for a wash.
A business man has sat down next to me on the aisle seat on the bus. We get along well enough, though like so many in India, he has taken a much greater interest in me than I have of him. He
Footbridge?  Why?Footbridge?  Why?Footbridge? Why?

The easiest way between two points...
peppers me with the same old, but sincere questions, the answers to which I can unconsciously rattle off. Oddly, I am not in the mood to talk, a rare occurrence. I turn to the window in hopes that Ramesh, a construction materials manager, will lay off me.
“Sir, do I bother you with all these questions? I can stop if you want.” I can’t tell him to stop; he is being polite and genuinely curious. He has done nothing wrong and wants to take advantage of a unique opportunity.
“No, it’s OK” I lie.
“So, you think who will win election in America? Obama?”
I have avoided many of these conversations directly and instead explain how the system works. “I don’t know.” It is an honest reply.
“But Obama, we like him a lot. “In Canada, very popular.”
“Good”, I said without fervor. But you folks don’t get to vote. And by the way, we don’t care what Canadians think about our affairs as much as they care about our take on fisheries in Newfoundland. For the past three weeks, I have heard every moderator from Indian television to the BBC (especially the BBC!) hand the election to the junior
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Amazing what you learn on a train...
senator from Illinois. “You should vote for Obama. Good man.” asserted Ramesh
“And McCain isn’t a good man?”
“Who?”

Women huddle together and sit in close proximity on the platform of Bikaner’s train station. Many trains are coming through, one to Jaipur, another to some desert terminus, and mine, to the mountain foothills. The ladies’ shawls cover their heads. They smile and rest comfortable on their luggage. Bikaner is no better off than anywhere else I have seen in Rajasthan, but complaints are few. Vast numbers of passengers disregard the pedestrian bridge to track two, from which my train is leaving. In place of lugging suitcases and cargo up two flights of stairs a hundred yards away and then back down, they drop their belongings at the edge of the first platform and gingerly step down to the tracks. While crushing cups and plastic bottles, they hand over each piece to someone else on the other side. The amount of bundled cargo on the platform far outnumbers standard pieces of luggage. Passengers in India are family couriers. The elderly are no exception. The police and military officers jump down to the tracks and dash across because the Jaipur train
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A Christmas toy come alive inside...
is rumbling in. Above to my right, the pedestrian bridge is empty but for those asleep on it. Unremitting police canvass the platform and physically scold loitering beggars and hungry, hairless canines with their lathis. One dog has been burned on its back hips and its hind paws. It hobbles on the two legs that still function well enough.
I settle into my train compartment at berth twenty with a Bikaner couple on their way to Shimla. They are not too enthused about me and retreat to another bunk to draw the curtains, then chat to each other over the dinner they brought aboard. I have taken advantage of the desert stops at lonely junctions to jump off the carriage and join the teeming sleeper class folks. We vie for deep fried food wrapped in a ball of newspaper. There is no order, no purpose to the vending. Men throw banknotes in the vendor’s face and in a frenzy stab inside the box for their meal. It is the same for the tea seller nearby. I mimic the same behavior out of necessity. If I do not, I am out a serving of Masala tea and the first course of
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The train that huffs and puffs...
my dinner. I have learned to enter the sleeper class on trains where possible; it is where itinerant vendors sell small hot meals for ten rupees. I load up there and take shelter back in my AC coach. As we reboard, there is a solitary railway car on an opposite track baking in the sun. On the side it reads Accident Relief Train.
As with my other rail journeys except Delhi to Agra, I am the only Westerner aboard and I love this. A train is the best place to organize my thoughts. I feel safe and dry in my compartment. The walls are protective. In the later hours of diminishing sunlight, I can look back at my short time in India and make note of what has most stood out in no particular order.
1. On a train, my compartment mates share with me their food and drink. In turn, I offer them to view the videos stored on my digital camera, other photos, lapel pins, and a map I carry of the United States. I answer as many questions as they can throw at me, and there are always a lot. All in all, it is a very
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Into the foothills...
fair exchange for all.
2. India is not a laid back place to travel. It is intense and sops up my energy.
3. The human resource pool and ferocious work ethic throughout India is superior to the today’s incoming workforce in the United States.
4. Indians have mastered the use of the cell phone from the wealthiest businessman to the filthiest street cleaner. Sanitary toilets for the masses are still unavailable. Manual labor is often cheaper than most mechanized options. So much for five thousand years of civilization.
5. As in any underdeveloped nation, the collective blindness of the upper classes never ceases to aggravate me.
6. A gentility and calmness of the people are at odds with the conditions and discomforts they must endure.
7. Madhukar and Kiran are my heroes to whom I am hopelessly indebted.
8. The raw sewage, urine, and excrement have started to lose their vile pungency. The strong odors of incense are pleasing and fulfilling. When rose petals and jasmine waft in the air, the smell is now sweeter.

The carriage attendant shook me out of bed and ordered me off no sooner than the train stopped at Chandigarh. I asked for permission to continue to Kalka, my mind made up I would continue north for the morning. I felt well, had already washed up and shaven, and resembled something close to human. The attendant tossed me off with no explanation. No ticket, no Kalka, as simple as that.
“Can I get a ticket at the window and be back on the train before it leaves the station?”
He gave me that look of having just been asked to recite calculus formulas in Korean. But one thing was certain: I had to get off. Not much later, I learned that the train would be in the station for another twenty minutes. I ran to the ticket window and was halted by the familiar accumulation of mass chaos, yelling, and flying bank notes at one window. Two women occupied other windows with ticket machines, but they were too busy filing their nails. The next departure to Kalka, the only way into Himichal, wasn’t until for another three hours. Now seven thirty, I had no interest to run around Chandigarh to find out if a bus would leave immediately. But I knew one thing without any doubt. There was a train, the one I had just gotten off. But the commotion at the ticket window was not going to sort itself out in time. So I made way back to a second class sleeper car, now half empty but for the debris left behind, grabbed an upper bunk, and kept out of sight.
I rode the train from Chandigarh to Kalka ticketless, nothing of which I am terribly proud. I had concocted a pretty good story if I came across train personnel, nothing that would have kept me on the train if they wanted me off again. However given how everyone bends the rules around here, my guilt did not last very long. I stayed quiet and motionless and saw that the car was completely cordoned off at each end. No one ever came back to sleeper class to visit me. I made it to Kalka in perfect order, bought a forty-cent ticket to Shimla, and was rather proud of how well the connections came together. I would have to wait thirty minutes, time for breakfast and to buy some water. Lovely.
Over the road is an option, but the only true way to get to Shimla, as with the rest of India, is by train. Because of the topography, the British constructed a narrow gauge track into the foothills. As I boarded, either I had grown significantly or everything about the train shrunk. The cars were wooden and narrow. Seats were compact and the benches short. The museum piece of a locomotive stood not much taller than me. As I sat down it became like being taken around in a safari park. This is what my nephew got for Christmas a few years ago: the set that travels in an endless circle around the tree. Only his had more horsepower.
The Little Engine That Could did not disappoint. It chugged, huffed, and fought its way through the foothills. Many times it would have been easier to jump off and run along for the exercise. Though I did not know it at the time, the journey of some eighty kilometers would take more than five hours. It did not matter; Shimla was where I was stopping for the day. When I got there concerned me none. Moreover, asking my fellow passengers the arrival time wouldn’t get me there any quicker. So I resisted the pointless question and took in my first impressions of Himachal Pradesh. My ears popped on each turn of the track’s unkind switchbacks. The first look at Himachal is of green temperate plant life. The state is moderately cleaner by Indian standards, but no less destitute. Common folk are more smartly dressed, as they walk to work along trampled footpaths. The integrity of homes varies from solid brick tenements to patches of black plastic roofs held off the ground by a tall branch in the form of a “T”. They would not pass inspection at a boy scout camp. The landscape is no cleaner, but the air is fresher and full of oxygen. Now that the temperature has plummeted some thirty degrees, I can wear a polo shirt during the day and not use it as a rag to soak up the perspiration.
Finely built tunnels and bridges make the ascent possible through bumpy carpeted slopes of damp, green long grass. As the train gains more altitude conifers appear, branchless for the first two-thirds of the way up their trunks. Some tower one hundred feet. All keep their distance from each other. Turns open to deep valleys and in some places there is no barrier between the track that I can just about lean over and touch, and eight hundred yards straight down into a gorge I cannot see and never hope to. In front of me an older teenage girl is the first victim of motion sickness. Her eyes roll. The poor thing in a black sari is reeling; her irises roll to the back of her head. She rocks to the swaying of the train and miraculously keeps from emitting even one dry heave.
As it is July, fine droplets filter downward from the sky. Cotton clouds scrape the hills and temporarily envelop villages, some for minutes and others the entire day. Residences in town are on terraced foundations. The vegetation is lush, wet, and thick. To be a cow here is the ultimate state of earthly bliss. Funny thing is the British came to Shimla and established it as their summer retreat from Delhi. It is a hill station with the very same bliss to which the British can relate: it is cool, damp, and rainy. When administrative officers rode from Delhi to Shimla each year, arriving at the station as I did, must have made them feel like they were home.

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