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.

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