My first train and an old friend, culinary minutiae and mistakes, beards and burkas and bombs; packing in the transport with congestion of roads and nose.
Last night I took the overnight Rajdhani Express 11 hours north to Hyderabad. It was my first Indian train and the process was pleasingly efficient. I booked online (although the website crashed a few times) and a ticket was couriered to “Shri David Titheridge” within two days. When the train pulled in, a list of occupants’ names was taped alongside each carriage door. A Railway Protection Force sign warned, “Do not accept biscuits, tea, drinks, fruits from the strangers. Don’t get drugged and lose your cash, jewels etc.” That made me a little nervous, reminding me to get a water bottle at the station chemist, where a man buying Vomistop tablets didn’t bode well either.
I had no need to accept magic cookies from leering malefactors. My “Trains at a Glance” book specified the menu with precision – 150 mL soup, 20 g bun, 10 g butter chiplet; 100 g rice, 150 g dal, 150 g vegetarian or chicken mains; 150 mL tea/coffee in a 170 mL capacity cup – and that’s exactly what arrived, the hot dish wrapped in foil as on planes. I guessed the pedantic detail might be to stop rail employees flogging off supplies. Others in my carriage complained about Indian inefficiency.
On board are both Western sitting and Indian squat toilets. The latter is more hygienic as no skin contacts the facilities, but by the same token you’re less balanced in a rocking train and need to grip the sink drain pipe. Speeding sleepers blur together through the hole. I was in second class A.C. Blue vinyl seats fold down to make bunks separated by dark blue curtains. It seemed a remarkably dull decor for India, maybe because the British built the railways. I got some broken sleep on my upper berth, before morning tea and crackers arrived. Best of all, not once did I wish for that chemist gentleman’s pills.
Dawn broke with romantic views of amber sunrise through the tinted windows, white herons reflected in water (doubtless stinking in prosaic reality), in which a few daring souls washed. At 7:30 am I arrived in Hyderabad (population about 6 million), capital of Andra Pradesh state. It’s long been the “Pearl Capital” of India and is now “Cyberabad”, Indian headquarters of Google and Bangalore’s IT competitor. The four-turreted Charminar, icon of the city, does look a bit futuristic when glowing blue and green at night. (See my Hyderabad photos here.)
I was met by my friend Hima, who shared the same postgraduate chemistry supervisor at Auckland University, and stayed with her family for two nights. We celebrated her mother’s 61st birthday at Nanking Restaurant. Chinese eateries are popular here as China is a neighbouring country but there were no chopsticks! As an alternative to chicken, I ordered sweet and sour pork and was embarrassed to discover the others, although Christian, wouldn’t eat it. Topped off the meal with paan: a mixture of ground nut and spices wrapped in a green betel leaf to freshen the breath. Returning home, we passed a wedding celebration. The bridal couple sat in a horse and buggy, while guests drummed, piped and danced till after midnight, lit by gas lamps carried on attendants’ heads.
Hyderabad has a strongly Muslim culture (perhaps explaining my predicament with the pork). I’ve seen more mosques than temples. A billboard outside the train station reads “Welcome to Haj pilgrims”, and other signs ask the pilgrims’ blessings on the city. A lot of Muslim men wear tight-fitting skullcaps, and those who who’ve been to Mecca have beards died reddish-orange. My beard is naturally ginger so I wondered whether they took me for a fellow pilgrim.
Many women show only eyes through black burka slits – few women in Bangalore covered up so well. Many also had braided hair hanging out the back of their veil, toenails polished with ankle bracelets, high-heel shoes, and were holding hands with a boyfriend in jeans.
14 people died in a bomb blast last May during Friday prayers at the 17th-century Mecca Masjid mosque, which can hold 10,000 people, so civic security is tight. Near the mosque are police “Rapid Action Force” buses and police jeeps with barred windows patrol the streets. There are metal detectors at entrances to malls and even one family lake-side park. A police sign read, “We salute the spirit of Hyderabad. Terrorism can’t divide us.” Billboards proclaimed, “Na Hindu, Na Muslim, Na Sikh – Na Issai”, or “No Hindu, No Muslim, No Sikh – No Difference”.
Hima’s young boys complained of the terrible streets and traffic, but I find them comparatively good after Bangalore, with few stand-still jams, and footpaths mostly intact although overcrowded. Vans equipped for “Mobile Pollution Monitoring” show environmental awareness, as did an electronic sign in Bangalore: “Carbon monoxide limit 10 mg/m3. Keep pollution under control.” The paper reported that increasing smog has reduced India’s sunshine by 5% over the last 20 years. I was pleased to see one LPG auto-rickshaw, hopefully the way of the future with its blissful absence of black belching. In New Delhi, I hear that all public transport is now CNG, significantly reducing pollution, although increasing private transport counterbalances the improvement.
Hyderabad auto-rickshaws have manual horn bulbs and cram in more people than in Bangalore – I’ve counted 8 or maybe more. And I have a new motorbike record: two black burka’d women behind the driver and two kids in front. Motorbike helmets are sold in stalls by the road. It’s all pretty thrilling, but I’m getting more used to crossing the crazy roads. The trick is to attach myself downstream of a group of locals. Pedalling more sedately are pushbike-drawn carts, bicycle rickshaws, and one tricycle ferrying baskets of live chickens. I smiled at the irony of a “Zen Motor Driving School”.
Although they call India an assault on all the senses, I haven’t noticed the smells as much as you might think because my nose is mostly half-blocked with dust. I use decongestant spray to clear it at night so I can breathe to sleep. Now and then I’m seduced by a whiff of incense from a shop or temple, or sickened by rotting refuse, animal or human dung or urine. Some walls read “Urination Prohibited”, but my olfactory organ senses that certain sidewalks are considered public conveniences.
After a gold coin meal of piping hot naan with tasty vegetable kurma – washing my right hand in warm water with a lemon slice and crunching mouth-freshener seeds – nose and stomach and morale all feel better. Every day in India has both positives and negatives. I oscillate between “It’s fantastic – I wanna come back!” and counting down the days before I get out. The Minnesotan students’ info pack was wise when it advised: take India one day – or even one minute – at a time.