The Kashi Express chugged, rattled and buzzed at a rocking rhythm swinging in its tracks towards the old city of many names. Some of its ancient avatars are Mahasmasana, Surandhana, and Brahma. Today it’s variously called Kashi, Benares, and Varanasi. A living citadel of the Hindu pantheon.
One Godhead, multiplying manifestations.
Behind, New Delhi’s street audio dimmed in its trails. By the jam-packed rush-hours standards of Indian Railways, the sleeper car was surprisingly spacious. The bunks were free. Today’s occupancy was suspiciously sparse.
-Is this the Kashi Vishwanath Express departing at 11:30 AM from New Delhi Train Station with a 4:30AM ETA at the Varanasi Junction Railway Station?
It was. I was delighted. I could try all the bunkers in this carriage. Novelty, like gossip, never wears off. Setting down my rucksack, I sat and stretched my limbs at my designated berth.
It was a Side Sleeper Lower Berth, with two windows. Priceless.
I adjusted my lie. Fished out the Hindustan Times weekend edition, a fat issue. The rucksack made a sturdy pillow. The front page was one big glossy ad. A nice jacket in advertising parlance.
A sign of things to come.
This is how it unfolded.
The contents were mostly ads. You can feel the ad. The texture is an ad. The gloss is an ad. The lamination is an ad. The ads were ads for ads, if that makes any sense. There's boutique condominiums in exclusive residential hectares. Like a world of Lego. There's interior decor for exterior rancor. Slick alloyed kitchens. Not a fruit out of shape. There's jewelry. Ornamental display. A TV that's bigger and smarter. It will keep you extra-entertained. The 6th Apple. Seducing you to take a forbidden bite. Join in the inner sanctum. The obverse page is Samsung's latest Note. Intimate memos telling you to own it publicly. There's ladies inner wear. With this garb, the boys are gonna go wankers. There's ladies watches. He's never gonna be late again. Ever. There's ladies perfume. The scent is gonna start a blood hunt. Territorial wars. Alpha-male dominance. There's men's suits. Yes boss. You're the man.
Women are gonna queue up with all their eggs in one common basket.
There's men's motorcycles. Live dangerously. The gals are literally spreading their legs for a wild ride and a smooth hump. There's life insurance. Death postponed. Heads held high. There's credit cards. Cash in and cash out. There's luxury cars. Go beyond mere convenience. Handmade, just for you.
There's booze. Live high. Intoxicating responsibility.
When I get to the news section the coverage is depressing. Syrians are dying. Syrians are on an exodus. Children are drowning attempting passage across unforgiving seas. There's murder. Road rage kills. The latest rape. Diplomatic stalemate. Blood chess-maneuvers. Accusations. Counter accusations. The Middle East is up in flares. North Africa is catching up. The rest of Africa is in New Delhi. More of the same. The U.S is a Trump card for Hillary. North Korea threatens nuclear attacks, for the umpteenth time. China has finished eating the black and white fishes. Yin and Yang are dead dishes. India's remaking India. With non-Indians. Nepal is bullied. They don't know how to play misty. Happiness is strangling Bhutan. So goes Bhutanese social media experts.
It's late midday and the train has pulled over. It's a plain old station somewhere in the vast swathes of U.P. Nothing stands out. What a charm.
I light a Capstan. The nicotine tastes better than the news.
Some passenger get out. Others get in. Food vendors do their bid. I go to the loo. A frail old woman is peacefully sleeping on a plastic mat in the narrow gangway. I'm tempted to wake her up to the fact that the bunks are empty. I recoil. I don't like waking up sleeping people. It’s a matter of principle. Strange as it sounds. So she continues sleeping. A humbling sight on a trembling train.
Who juxtapositions all these paradoxical mayhems?
This land is an affront to all preordained concepts.
Back in the bunk and the paper. I'm down to the sports. My favorite bit. No guilt. No outrage. No indignation. No injustice. Just plain old football and nauseating cricket. Jose Mourinho is blue. Juergen Klop is no flop. Sepp Blatter is taking down as many of his former cronies as he can. Platini can't believe the old fart's French disclosure. Money paid. No receipts. The All Blacks are tearing down the world in the British Isles. Haka after Haka. They play the Wallabies tonight while I’m still grazing this edition. I hope they do the loudest and longest Haka. Wallabies be damned.
I bypass cricket. No further comments.
I'm done. Now the editorial. I like this part. I call it the Eagle-Spread. Easiest bit. You part it straight down the middle. Like Christian Bale’s hair. It's Modi and the Africans. It's the Indian intelligentsia returning back their accolades. The protest is over sectarianism. The spark is the Indian Film and Television Institute's newly anointed chairman. Apparently he's not secular enough for artistic displays. He was a government appointee. The ruling BJP, the Indian People's Party, is supposedly in cahoots with the right wing fascistic RSS. So they say. An organization promoting Hindutva. They assert. A call for all things Brahman is the upper-lip high-brow alarm. Muslims are on tenterhooks. Experience isn’t chaos theory. It's dangerous terrain. Sectarianism is hot in Bihar. To rule, parties are casting divisions.
It’s a lot of beef.
The supper comes over. I order veg.
The funny pages at last. Garfield's Zen. Animal Crackers are Tao. Peanuts going Christian. I don't do numbers. Scratch out the Sudoku.
It's now nearing dusk. Twilight teases the passing horizon.
Birds are flying home. No broken nests I hope.
I think of a sunrise. It was a couple of months back. I was returning home via the New Delhi-New Jalpaiguri route. It was a bunk just like this. I was up at about four. A cracking dawn. There was a scarlet glow in the distance. It became more luminous as it rose. And in a moment the rice fields of monsoon pools were reflecting the rising lights of polished precious stones, casting sublime brilliance on palm and betel nut trees, down to the houses and the streets, enveloping them all in a glorious display of changing iridescent rainbows. Natural unequalled glamour. Effortless glitter.
Even the garbage shone in sheer delight.
It was worth all my Indian woes. Simple as that.
Back in my bunk. The Kashi Express rocking at a steady beat. No delays.I gaze out with no specific longing. Dusk dawning. The sun's bright rays are dimming fast. The aura refining in sharper focus. Enlightened details emerge. It was now turning orange. A beautiful tangerine then hung dipping into the land. Falling gracefully. The drifting mist and the thickset clouds transforming. Scarlet haze. Ruby red. Blood diamond. Golden cast. I keep gazing. Mesmerized. Unfathomable change occurring on a daily show. Twice a day.
Radical rites. Beauty is a subjective perspective, making it all the more alluring. Bedazzling. It's bold. It's in your face. Million dollar works of art pale in comparison. Mona Lisa herself would cry ashamed at such banality. Then cry out in joy and wonder at such natural availability. The haunted figure from The Scream would find relief, sanity and delight in such imagery.
The ephemeral cannot be duplicated, much less owned. Signed. Copyrighted. Sold.
The beauty is ephemeral. The ephemeral is beautiful. I go wishy-washy.
Then it leaves. Gone. Abrupt. Like thunder. Like lightning. Sudden calm ensues. The train’s familiar strain resurfaces. Darkness blackens.
I'm energized. Nature wakes you up recharged.
I pull out the other paper I'd bought. The Times of India is an icon. Age does that. So long as it’s around it will be an immortal. Appearances are impressionable. I just wanna pass the hours. Reading is a leisurely activity if there's nothing at stake for the reader. Right now I'm like that. Neutral. Detached. Emotionally indifferent. Mildly curious at best. I delve in.
The front page has an ear for a starter. Most curious. It's shaped like a bookmark. It's not a bookmark. It's ad-space. It's an ad-mad business. There's nothing here that wasn't in the Hindustan Times. Including the news coverage.
I take out the supplementary page. Discard the matrimonial. Go to the Bollywood/Hollywood bit. Snippets actually. Gossipy. Juicy. Pointless. It's the personality cult ad. Sell faces. Sell bodies. Sell sex. Sell the ultimate ad, fantasy. Wrap it up in silken fabric. Give it a sheen. And hope. Variety. Spice. Possibility. Potentiality. And the addiction is complete.
Thus hooked we line up and live. Day in. day out.
I skip through the rest. People respond to bad news. They want more. The badder the better. No such thing as bad publicity.
I'm thinking of journalism. I'm a journalist. Apparently. On voluntary semi-retirement. I don't value it above other professions. Nor below. But it’s callow. Openly shallow. Blindly narrow. The stuff is made of general sorrow. When creativity dies you borrow. Plagiarize. Cut and paste. Hog credits. Anything for the next issue. No byline no tissue. Grab the next headline. Kill decency. Make the deadline. One man's story is another man's glory. Tragic-traps. Medicinal waters in a poisoned chalice. No escape. No excuse. Its glamorous rags. Movies on a page. It's righteous self-aggrandizement.
The pen is not mightier than the sword and the sword is not sharper than the pen. They're mere tools of the ad-biz trade.
One asshole, two cheeks.
Consumption is the mother lode of all vanities. Disguised as necessities. Convenience the bastard-child. Tolerance the step-mom. Apathy the motherfucker. Neglect the poor next of kin. Accountability the absent father.
With that, I passed-out. When I came to, the carriage was really empty. Nobody in. The train was still.
I looked out the double windows. Twilight hues. Dawning prelude. There’s airy commotion. Coolies in red ferrying luggage. Announcements over the PA. Jarring warnings. It was the station in Varanasi. And waiting at Hanuman Ghat was Shanti Rest House. Dawn’s brightening. There's a real possibility I'm gonna catch the sunrise over the Ganga. But first a hot cup of chai in earthy clay cups, called Matkas, local style. Busting the Matka makes my morning.
A Capstan to warm up the early chills. Then an auto rickshaw that won't take me for a Firangi fool. A tourist. Insipid. Loaded. Selfie-stick in hand.