In Calcutta, I wake to the news that my teacher and friend Roderick West has died, tearing a hole in my heart. Yet such was the man’s intellect and spirit that he always seemed eternal, so it is not so difficult for me to believe that he is. I will keep thoughts of Rod close to me throughout the journey ahead.
I arrive at Howrah Terminus in Calcutta, after crossing the Howrah Bridge, a marvel of engineering, to reach another marvel of engineering: the Indian railways. As in all the great railway terminals of India, there are literally thousands of passengers embarking and disembarking, eating and greeting and waiting (often sleeping), waiting for trains that may take twenty-four hours or more to reach their destination.
Like an iron Ganges, the railway is the sacred artery of the Indian nation, uniting those who might otherwise be divided by distance, as well as language, religion, caste and class. At least until they divide into their various carriages and tiers, Snowpiercer-style.
Indeed, the railways are as segregated as any sub-continental institution, if along economic lines, albeit lines that largely mirror the more traditional stratifications of caste.
Preferring, when health and temperament permit, to eschew luxury, I buy a ticket on sleeper class. Although non-AC – what better way to get to know a place than to taste its air? – a sleeper ticket means I will indeed have an allocated berth, yet far from guarantees it won’t be occupied – often by more than one person – along with their babies, televisions, sacks of grain, sand or cement, and enormous quantities of tiffin packed snacks. These snacks are washed down by a steady stream of hot masala tea from the chai-wallahs, who run along the carriages to ply their trade, along with bellowing vendors sellling samosa, vadai, namkeen, water bottles, newspapers, children’s games and knicks-knacks.
Travelling India by rail is vastly more enjoyable – and safer – than the exasperating (and often sickeningly perilous) experience of travel by long distance bus. Of which more later. Yet even the railways may prove exhausting, especially if one’s seat with a perfectly good view of the countryside rolling along outside is already occupied by a flatulent baba. If, however, like all other aspects of travel in India one is simply prepared to relax and surrender to the flow then the rewards are infinite.
Despite the endless struggle for legroom, Indians – particularly lower class Indians – will go out of their way to accommodate newcomers, even if that means inhabiting each other’s personal space like sweaty puzzle pieces. But best of all is the way that, over the course of any given journey, a carriage full of strangers becomes familiar, and by the time one’s destination is reached, many will have become firm friends. Often the oddest and most intimidating characters will prove the nicest. On that first trip alone I got to know a genial Thai monk also on his way to Bodh Gaya, along with a young Bengali intellectual who was the first person I met in India to openly criticise the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And then there was the cheerful Gujarati engineer who simply wanted to show me videos of his favourite heavy machinery on his mobile phone, lovingly edited together and accompanied by a thumping dance track.
As I say farewell to my new friends – the excitable monk having already disappeared – my train sidles into Gaya. Gaya is a grim and uninspiring city in the still poverty stricken northern Indian state of Bihar. The contrast with West Bengal and Calcutta is stark, and like most of the strangers on the train I am merely passing through, and am soon speeding through the traffic-choked city to Bodh Gaya. My tuktuk driver pauses to buy cigarettes and peanuts from an old man on the side of the road, stretched out on a rug with an ancient pair of scales. Taking a drag on the first of many cigarettes, the driver hands me the peanuts. “A gift,” he smiles. “Welcome to India.”
Bodh Gaya is one of Buddhism’s most sacred places. It was here beneath the Bodhi Tree that the Buddha attained Enlightenment, and thereby changed the course of history. Here a United Nations of pilgrims gathers from across the world, most obviously from South and East Asia, but also from the West, joined by those – like me – simply curious about the history and culture of the place. This internationalism is reflected in the temples clustered around Bodh Gaya, built by Buddhist groups from Tibet, Bhutan, Japan and Taiwan, among others. (Bodh Gaya’s international flavour is also reflected in its food, and here it is possible to eat momos to one’s heart’s content.)
Most extravagant of all is the Thai temple, built with the imprimatur of the Thai King himself. It is beautiful, but perhaps just a little gauche to eclipse the historical temple complex in opulence and scale. The Thai temple even has a coffee shop and hospital, including massage clinic. Still, the staff at the Thai temple were the kindest I encountered in Bodh Gaya, and I spent time chatting to the head gardener. She passes half of every year maintaining the temple gardens, and the other half back home in Thailand. Without doubt, it was one of the loveliest gardens in India.
Drawn by the sacred atmosphere – and the momos – Bodh Gaya is a bustling place, with thousands of visitors arriving on pilgrimage and package tours, or on packaged pilgrimages. Smiling and laughing, they fill their bags with jangling religious tat, and pose for selfies in front of the temple complex and the Bodhi Tree. Despite this carnival atmosphere, Bodh Gaya is also, compared to most places in India, a supremely peaceful and uplifting place, particularly when one has survived the queues and strict security checks to enter the central temple complex itself. There, people from the four corners of the world converge to sit and wonder, walk and wander, bow or meditate or pray, and I join the throng encircling the tree, before taking time out to sit beneath that incense scented place and simply listen to the sound of chanting in perhaps a hundred languages, maybe more. The Bodhi Tree itself is not the original, rather grown from a cutting of a cutting of the original, sourced from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. It is the grandchild of the tree under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment.
As the sun sets and the world bathes in purple the sound of prayer fills the air, perfumed with the memory – and the hope – of good lives, well lived. As I mourn my departed friend and teacher, here seems the best of all places to remember the importance of walking on, as best we may, along the path towards Enlightenment, wherever it leads us.