Allahabad to Khajuraho
Travel is what happens when you’re making other plans.
I knew something was amiss as I left the Anand Bhavan. Even as I forced a smile, posing for photographs with a troop of Indian Scouts, I knew a monster stalked me. Soon I was caught in its hot vice, spewing in the toilets of the best bar in Allahabad.
Eventually, I forced myself outside into the dusty air and climbed aboard a rickshaw. I had been dreading leaving that atmosphere-controlled oasis, and feared the first whiff of rancid ghee, petrol fumes, or cow shit would leave me stricken once more. So I all but held my breath for the journey home – a short stroll, but by no means short ride, owing to the inconvenient imposition of a sprawling train station between the rickshaw and my bed.
The guesthouse was the worst of my trip by far, and I dreaded every minute that I spent inside. Whilst no one wants to be sick anywhere, no one wants to be sick in a dripping oubliette with no hot water, and a toilet wedged so closely to the wall that I had to lower myself like a skill-tester to reach the seat.
I crawled into bed at three that afternoon and passed a bone-achingly long night. Pestilent visitations interrupted intervals of hallucinogenic sleep.
By morning the fever had broken and I was void.
Weak and weary and sore, Khajuraho took shape in my mind like the Promised Land. And so I hauled myself from that fetid room, and foolishly prepared for a long day on the bus, a prospect marginally less unholy than another day in that reeking place.
Soon it emerged my guesthouse owner has given me bad information. Very bad information. There was no bus to Khajuraho. Instead, I had to take three buses, which might, just might, take me to my destination in something like fifteen hours. In an indication of how badly illness had impaired all judgment, I surrendered to this dark reality, and set off for a day of buttocks vibratingly awful transportation.
Consolation on such buses typically emerges from a succession of interesting travelling companions, but this was one day when I really did not want to talk to anyone, and desperately wished I had been sufficiently anti-social to bring earphones and an iPod.
Yet there were moments of grace.
Riding the local back roads opens one’s eyes to the lives of those in the heartland, neither rich nor the poorest of the poor, getting by in a world coloured with the spectacle of local ritual. I try to dwell on this bright world outside my window, instead of the unexpected roadblocks: herds of livestock, fallen trees and endless trains.
Having not kept down food for twenty-four hours, and wary even of drinking, it all becomes too much, and I make a snap decision. The young man behind me has explained that he too is heading to Khajuraho, adding that we likely will not be there for hours to come, and certainly not until long after the sunset. He is, I learn, returning with his mother to their village after her recent surgery. My proposal to him is this: If, at the next stop, he negotiates a good rate with a local driver, I will pay for all of us to take a taxi to Khajuraho.
Free of that rattling bus, with the sun already setting, and two more buses yet ahead, Mahendra leaves me at a chai vendor with his mother, as he heads off to conduct what he refers to as “money business.” Although I’m bewildered by the length and nature of the negotiation, he soon returns with a driver. He promises to take us all to Khajuraho in half the time two more buses would demand. Late to the party is Mahendra’s uncle, but why not? Let’s have a family road trip. Soon we are off like weary travellers druggily elevated from economy to business class, and we hurtle in comfort towards Khajuraho, as Hindi trance tears the airwaves.
Before Mahendra and his family retire into their home, no less happy and relieved than I, he vows to repay my kindness (although I think of the kindness as his), and we agree to meet after lunch the next day. He will be my guide. I will meet his wife and sister and eat with his family like a brother. Overwhelmed with emotion — as well as illness and exhaustion — I bid him goodnight. Then I make in haste for my guesthouse – a true oasis after the last – and tumble down into a dreamless sleep.