On Chickens Coops & Train Stations

“Go to Old Delhi, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.”

- Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

I read The White Tiger as a college student with dreams of mastering yoga poses on a pink-peaked Himalayan mountain and dropping acid with gurus in white robes. Before my trip, the story was one of my few glimpses into the caste systems and corruption that permeated India, the gap between the serving class and the served. The book was in my backpack — tucked alongside four pairs of underwear, hiking boots, and a SteriPen — for my two-month, post-collegiate adventure across the country. But my interest in Indian politics was an afterthought. I was mostly just another Westerner looking to replace my “confirmed Catholic but kind of Agnostic but sometimes I meditate” spiritual side with something more convincing.

Varanasi was our 7th stop — my friend Roxy and I had been traveling for eight weeks — and this was to be the apex of the backpacker’s spiritual journey. We found ourselves at a Lonely Planet recommended bakery after an overnight train, with tangled hair and harem pants spattered with dried curry stains. We sat at a table with other travelers, and began talking to an Israeli who had just arrived from an ashram in the North, where he had spent six months living under a vow of silence.

It was our first day in the Holiest City of India — known for the River Ganges and Hindu human cremation ceremonies — and we were already becoming privy to Varanasi’s social hierarchy. Not of the caste-variety, in fact, this hierarchy actually had nothing to do with Indians. The city was overrun with two types of Westerners: the tourists — in clima-lite-cargo pants and sun visors, so fresh from the Taj Mahal, you could smell it on them — and the travelers. Many of the travelers had an air of superiority for doing India the “right” way — leaving behind their lives in search of understanding the spiritual practices that had originated in India — mediation, yoga, reincarnation. Undoubtedly, the stakes of their trip were higher — the travelers were under self-induced pressure to return to their home countries with more than just photos and trinkets. We spoke with a number of them at breakfast, the conversation circling around tales of self-inflicted hunger, silence, loneliness. For we all agreed, enlightenment could not come without suffering.

After breakfast, I rushed to the closest street vendor to wrap my wrists with bangles and hemp strands and toss a strand of mala beads around my neck. But even in costume, I felt insecure among the other travelers, overshadowed by their tales, worried that despite my best intentions, I might just be a tourist. I could speak of suffering — we had spent a week on volunteering on an organic aloe vera farm, nearly starving from the lack of food they gave us — but even that experience didn’t offer any semblance of enlightenment. I felt as if I had missed something along the way. Our trip was almost over and Varanasi was hardly the spiritual climax I was seeking. There was no avoiding the heaps of Westerners — we heard more English than Hindi while wandering along the ghats. The sadhus looked glamorously holy in their orange wraps and face paint but demanded 100 rupees in exchange for a photo. We took a yoga class from a man who challenged us to close our eyes for every pose so he could discreetly text on his cell phone. And as we sat by the river at night, haunted by the charring bodies that lay in flames just yards away, we were accosted by children selling postcards and opium

Purity and filth intertwine in Varanasi

“A place of holiness,” Pico Iyer writes of Varanasi, “is not set apart from the world, in a Shangri-la of calm, but a place where purity and filth, anarchy and ritual, unquenchable vitality and the constant imminence of death all flow together.” At the time, I couldn’t view Varanasi with this threadlike quality — each moment, no matter what emotion it evoked, an individual element intertwined in this tapestry. I tossed aside the moments of introspection — the cloud of heat and heaviness that hovered over me as I watched families gather around the flames of their loved ones — as if they were anomalies in our cartoon sequence. “To the East,” Roxy and I agreed, after four days, ready to shed our jewelry and escape the smothering heat for the cool mountains of Darjeeling.

The trains heading East from Varanasi were sold out for the next several days so we purchased a ticket from a travel agent, who sent us to a station in Mughal Serai, a small village two hours outside of Varanasi. We packed up and plodded away in a rickshaw just as the city’s nightly cremation ceremony had begun, listening to the pounding of drumbeats and strum of sitars echoed in the distance.

The Indian railway system is a remarkable feat of infrastructure. A remnant of British colonization, the sprawling lines of steel stretch more than 64,000 miles across the country. It is the fourth largest in the world yet it is operated with the efficiency of a lazy local coffee shop. A train can face a multi-hour delay when the Master Conductor wants to stop for a chai. We were seasoned Indian travelers at this point in our journey — twenty plus hour train rides from city to city within the country had become the norm. We had become accustomed to delays at around the same time we had discarded our preventative malaria medication.

But when we arrived at the Mughal Serai train station an hour early for our 10 PM train, it wasn’t even posted on the departure board. I approached the ticket sales window. “Why isn’t Train 15834 posted?” The agent shook his head and pointed to a dry-erase board behind him. Next to the number 15834 was a sentence scribbled in Hindi.

“Your train has a twenty nine hour delay,” said the man standing behind me in the clump of travelers cluttered at the window.

“Sorry?”

“A twenty-nine hour delay.”

“Twenty nine hours?” I turned back to the man behind the counter.

The man bobbled his head. He didn’t understand me but shook his head from side to side and up and down simultaneously — the elusive Indian head nod.

“That seems impossible,” Roxy said when I came back with the news. She was standing at the fringe of the crowd with two blondes she had met, German travelers, also trying to catch the train to Darjeeling. “Let’s ask someone else.” The four of us wove through crowds, stepping around sleeping bodies wrapped in bright saris, and bare foot children, selling gum and magazines, in search of anyone who could give us more information. “Chai, coffee, chai, coffee,” I nearly ran into a man dragging a pail of hot milk across the floor.

We found an open office downstairs, with three men situated around the table, deep in conversation.

“We’re looking for the International Tourist office.”

They ignored us and continued chatting in Hindi. We attempted to follow the conversation, looking back and forth at the man who was speaking, waiting for a better interlude to interrupt.

“Do you know when Train 15834 is arriving?” we interrupted again.

We must have appeared as displaced white statues to them. We left and wandered further into the maze of the station. There was no International Tourist office but we found the Master Conductor’s office downstairs on the platform. He looked up from his microphone where he had been announcing train times over the intercom in Hindi. His brown face was round and sticky with sweat, like a syrup-soaked honeyball sold in a Delhi sweetshop.

“It is a 29 hour delay,”

“How can it be such a long delay?”

“It is a bad train. Very bad train.” We lingered in the doorway until he shooed us away — hesitantly leaving the one person who spoke English.

It was well past midnight by the time we accepted the news — too late for the two-hour rickshaw ride back to Varanasi. We slept in the heat of the train station, swatting away mosquitos and drowning out the train announcements. There wasn’t much to see in the village of Mugal Serai so the following morning, we dragged our bags to the station restaurant, and ordered paper dosas and masala chais at 30 minute intervals, watching the small hand of the clock tick away bringing us slowly closer and closer to 3:45 AM, the revised departure time of our train.

The sun had already sunk in the distance when we returned to the station but our train was not posted on the Departure board. We returned to the honeyball-faced conductor — he reported that the train was delayed an additional 18 hours.

We sought other transportation, negotiating with taxi drivers, phoning travel agencies, even walking to the nearest bus station. It was futile — there were no busses, no other trains, and a taxi would cost several hundred American dollars. I thought of the dwindling rupees in my bank account, budgeted just enough for a hostel and food and tea tour in Darjeeling, and lay my head on my backpack for another night of sleep at the station. I woke up several times in the middle of the night, plucking mosquitos from my arm, clutching my pocket to feel for my wallet, and dreading the decisions that needed to be made with the sunrise.

We could not return to Varanasi. We knew this from the beginning. It was not about the price of the rickshaw or the length of the journey. It was because we had left a place so drenched in death, we did not want to return.

“To photograph people is to violate them,” Susan Sontag reflects in On Photography. “Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder — a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” This idea lingered with me each night in Varanasi as we sat on the cement steps watching the cremation ceremonies and heard the shutter click on a tourist’s DSLR or saw a soft glow emanating from an iPhone flash. “Sir. Sir. Madame. There are no photos here,” teens would patrol the grounds. “But come with me. I show you where to take photos.” Most tourists would put their cameras away but a few would follow the teens to hotel balconies where they could continue the photo shoot.

It is not just photography that violates people. The same can be said of the voyeur, of the person who absorbs only with their eyes but lingers for too long, taking in pain that is not their own. Nearly 80 bodies are cremated along the ghats every day, in hopes of receiving “moksha” or liberation from incarnation. It is still the city of Shiva, one of the most holy locations for Hindus to pilgrimage, and the ground of the Ganges, where the religious Hindus come to bathe and purify themselves for life. But many of the city’s inhabits are dependent on tourists for their livelihood, and this creates a tension that few other places in the world know.

The backpackers go to India to search. And to suffer. We expected an easy trade-off — discomfort in exchange for heightened spirituality. And we can do this — we can starve and take vows of silence and sit still for hours and volunteer to pick aloe vera with our bare hands. But Varanasi is not the place meant for travelers to suffer.

We cannot understand our own existence by witnessing the cremation of strangers. We did not know the scents of the bodies that are rising in smoke curls towards sky — they did not smell like ashes while they were on Earth. The Lonely Planet restaurants are filled with people like us — trying to figure out their place in this city. We rely on our own tales of adventure and suffering to prove that we are more than just voyeurs. We create a system of hierarchy to protect ourselves, to separate ourselves from the people we fear ourselves of being. Yes, there are tourists here to observe but they are different from us. They are spectators in cargo pants and Adidas sneakers. As we learned the corners of the train station, we realized that Varanasi did not teach us about death. But Mughal Serai was teaching us of a resting place — a stagnant world where we were not moving forward but we couldn’t return to the place we had left. And although the four of us never spoke of this, we may have felt more comfortable in this resting place, than we ever had in Varanasi.

The heat poured down on us. My t-shirt melted into skin, and my chunky beaded necklace hung like chain around my neck, a grotesque reminder of the tourist shop where I had wasted my dwindling rupees. We had been in the station for nearly 60 hours by now and we still were waiting for Train 15834. We stopped visiting the Honeyball-faced conductor’s office; his responses were becoming more and more vague. The train will come, he told us hours ago. You Americans are not patient. We complained to each other, vented in our journals, doused ourselves with bottled water, and learned how to count in German. Roxy sat cross-legged on the cement floor and began playing her travel didgeridoo. The instrument reverberated a melancholy drone throughout the tiny station — a soundtrack to our misery. Station beggars and train passengers moved closer to us to watch her. Their body heat fogged up my glasses, and I escaped to purchase a samosa.

Passing time at the train station.

As I returned to the group, a child approached me holding out his hand, beckoning for the pastry. I tore it in two and handed it to him as a chunk of the potato filling

fell to the floor. He popped it in his mouth and beckoned for more.

“Scram,” I grunted, regretting I had split it with him in the first place.

I stared at the back of the child’s wispy frame as he beckoned for another tourist’s food, thinking of The White Tiger once again. He reminded me of the narrator, Balram, a little Halwai boy who crawls around the floor of a teashop as a boy, looking for scraps. But the narrator of The White Tiger is a rare case in India. He is a chicken who escapes from the cage. He robs and kills his master, moves to Bangalore, and bribes the local police to start a car service agency. I looked at the little beggar boy’s feet, blackened with dirt and train soot. He was likely not going to get out of the train station, let alone the chicken coop.

I didn’t expect my moment of enlightenment to come while standing on the Mugal Serai train platform — unbrushed teeth thick with plaque, a belly full of crackers and train station pastries, and knotted hair beginning to form dreadlocks. I had been in India for eight weeks — I had read Arundhati Roy’s Field Notes on Democracy while sitting in a café over looking the Taj Mahal, sipping a chai and ruminating over her ideas on why democracy in India would never work. I had recommended The White Tiger to every English-speaking traveler we had met, gushing over the author’s chicken coop metaphor to conceptualize the corrupt, caste-driven society.

But even so, the country I had inhabited — the spicy vegetable curries, the painted elephants, the cows on the street, the friendly shopkeepers — had seemed so far away from Swiss bank accounts and natural resources, elections and professional cricket matches. The vote buying and bribes in all of the books and articles I had read had seemed esoteric — it couldn’t have possibly applied to our situation. The child disappeared and I felt heated with shame at our interaction, which might have been my first moment of seeing through my hyper-informed gaze, my first engagement with the “real” India.

I returned to the honeyball conductor’s office and interrupted a group of office workers, who were dipping nan into bowls of curry.

“I would like to get four tickets to a train to Darjeeling,” I announced, taking a stack of rupees out of my money belt.

“4 PM. You will need to buy a General Ticket and then we will accommodate you.” A man wearing a flannel shirt and blazer stood at the table.

“How much?”

“450 rupees for the seat plus 500 rupees for the accommodation.”

— -

That was all it took. The train arrived 30 minutes late, packed with Indian families. We exchanged $15 US dollars for a handwritten ticket marked “Increased Fare Tickets” and the conductor began shooing everyone out of the car. We settled into our seats, watching the casualties of our bribe step off onto the platform as the train took off.

I fell asleep on the train almost immediately, exhausted from the days spent in the station, sleeping on the concrete, with my head cocked up against my backpack. When I woke up, I saw a man squatting in a barren field to use the toilet and reached into my backpack to pull out my copy of the White Tiger. I peeled back the covers and reveled once again in the story of Balram, understanding the dissonance for his country with more clarity and interpreting his motive to murder with a little more compassion.

The sky was growing lighter and the passengers on the train began to murmur restlessly. But I continued to read. “Everyone man must make his own Benares,” says the protagonist towards the end of the novel, referring to the old name of Varanasi.

Indian Trains

Pico Iyer quotes this line too. He says Varanasi is the home of your grandmother’s dusty superstitions, and the new global Indian purports to have no time for it. Perhaps this holds some truth. But from a Western perspective, India will never completely shed its elusive spiritual glow; it will never be a country only known for glossy skyscrapers and high tech call centers and computer programmers.

For us, Varanasi did not teach us of death. And India did not teach us of spirituality. We could not understand death by just watching others dying. We could not understand our existence more just by temporarily depriving ourselves of our Western comforts, when we knew we could always take them back. I hesitate to say we found our Benares in the train station. But it was the first time during our India journey where we had actually been lost. And it was then that we saw our faint glimpse of death, a place where we could not exercise control, a place where we were trapped between the place we were headed and the place we had come from.

Made it to Varanasi.
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