Friday, 8 August 2014
Felix the Frog 1
“There is light at the end of the tunnel for India, but it's that of an
oncoming train which will run them over.”
Navjot Singh Sidhu
The train that threatened to run us over would come along after we left Gwalior. But we were pretty beaten up even before we boarded. A passing truck had taken us to Dholpur from outside the gate of Talab-e-Shahi, through scenes of other ruined palaces and umbrella-toting goatherders. We had hopes of reaching the erotic temples of Khajuraho that day, but nothing is linear or quantum in India. At the bus station in Gwalior, we established that there was no way to get there directly on rubber wheels.
Robyn and Julie and I hired a tonga for the day, and clip-clopped downhill to the train station. After five windows of chaotic head bobbing, the station manager appeared, to inform us that we would have to take an evening train to Mahoba, and then a bus to Khajuraho, whatever day that would be. This would give us time to see Gwalior Fort, for which the town was named.
Our carriage trotted up to the Fort entrance, where we were met by Choti, a twenty year-old science student, who volunteered his services as our guide.
Gwalior Fort had occupied a unique place in human civilization as the location of the first recorded use of zero. Named for the saint that cured the ruling king of leprosy, zero may have been what was left after he lost his other digits.
Most surviving wreckage in India contained antiquity too convoluted and contorted for an average human to absorb. Gwalior was but one prototype. The order that Choti would bring to Gwalior’s historical chaos was only surpassed by the chaos he would bring to Gwalior’s historical order. After a few probing questions, we settled for his entertainment value, and a running review of world cricket rankings. The climb through the four gates, alone, had already sabotaged any taste we had for precision anyway.
Built in the 8th century, Babur had described it as ‘the pearl in the necklace of the forts of Hind.’ Also known as the ‘Gibraltar of India,’ the fort forms a perpendicular precipice of massive yellow-orange sandstone rocks, overlain by basalt, rising over three hundred and forty feet above the plain, three hundred yards wide, one and a half miles long, and an area of just over a square mile.
Choti took us through the Elephant Gate, along the elephant-boarding ramp, past the Jain temples and forty foot statue of Parswanath, to the thousand year old tiles on the Man Singh palace. Inside, he showed us Man Singh’s throne, the screened boxes for his nine wives, dancing halls, underground dyeing vats, and dark dungeons, with their corpse-swinging hooks still in place. Most horrible was the unbelievable profusion of bats, their clickings, and their droppings. The celestial Chinese dragons at the hilt of the pillars below were of no earthly use. To everyone’s relief, however, Choti knew the location of the two wires that sparked a single subterranean light bulb into luminescence. The shadows it created were worse.
It was clear that bad things had happened here. Choti told us of competing family members of Mughal rulers, tortured and killed. Female relatives of the king had been ‘volunteered’ to be thrown into the flames of suttee bonfires. In the 1857 revolt, the bloodiest battle ever fought on Indian soil was triggered by a British calvary charge against twenty thousand defenders of Gwalior Fort, during which India’s Joan of Arc, Rani Lakshmi Bai, was killed. Less than a year after we visited the fort, Sikhs were burned alive where we had walked, to avenge the murder of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards. It was a place of fire and blood, and batshit.
At the end of the tour, the girls were relieved to be trotting back downhill, in the back of another tonga. After a final recitation of cricket test scores, Choti had suggested another route to Khajuraho, via a train to Harpalpur.
We made for the station. I led the charge through the turnstiled maze, to the ticket window, and stepped into a cow pie, laying in ambush, directly underneath it. I looked down at the greenish-black dung discus swallowing my sandals, and up at Robyn and Julie, more amused at my puzzlement, than my predicament. How, I wondered, how did a cow back up all the way through an iron railing labyrinth and baffle gate, to deposit a fresh meadow muffin under the very ticket window to Harpalpur? We had gone from batshit to bullshit in less than an hour. I had stepped into a cow patty portent.
We sat eating bananas on the platform, until the train pulled in, an hour late. It was a hot and muggy night, and the flying insects under the lights vied for landing rights on our eyes and in our airways. The crowds on the inside of our carriage did likewise, and we had to assert ourselves even more than usual, to keep our seats. From under our arms, streams of sweat ran to catch up with down. The thronging masses on the outside of our caged window accelerated into a multicolored blur, as our locomotive cleared the station. We exhaled, out of fatigue and relief, and the little extra breathing room it might provide.
I looked up into the eyes of a head bobbling teenage boy, bursting with something he seemed desperate to resolve. One of his many teenage pimple pals hiding behind him pushed his shoulder from behind, in encouragement.
“What.” I asked.
“Excuse me Sah’b, but perhaps it is possible to answer a question for us.” He said, wobbling like a pressure cooker regulator. His friends giggled uncontrollably, behind him.
“What.” I said again, bracing for it.
“Which one of these ladies are you enjoying relations with?” He asked. And his entire entourage burst into flames.
“Both of them.” I said. May as well make it unforgettable. My little interrogator paused, looking for words of resolution, and a way out. I braced for closure.
“You are a very lucky man.” He bobbled. And, with that, the entire juvenile masturbatory mob of Gwalior high school boys, faded back into the compartment they had materialized from.
I shifted my gaze to the two elderly gentlemen sitting directly adjacent to us. They inquired as to our destination.
“Oh.” They whistled, when I told them. “This train is going to Madras.”
“Madras?!” Screamed Julie and Robyn, and turned their scrutiny on me. I could feel Uncle Albert’s baseball cap, wilting over my forehead. The carriage grew very dark and very hot.
“Better to get off at the next station.” They suggested. We should have, but we were initially too paralyzed, and then too slow, to get it right.
An army chap then advised us to continue on to Jhansi, home of our Rani Lakshmibi. He explained that, the reason she became such a revolutionary figure, was because, when her husband died, before she could produce him an heir, the British annexed Jhansi, and allowed the slaughter of cattle. There would have been no cow pies beyond the turnstiles under the ticket windows in that territory.
If the train we were on was actually going all the way to Madras, it wasn’t going to arrive within that calendar year. It stopped in every hamlet on the way, and some in between. We spent hours cursing and walking up and down the length of it. Finally, around 3:30 am, we pulled into Joan of Arc’s hometown. It had taken five hours to go thirty-seven miles. Yes, there was a bus to Khajuraho. No, there was no space in the retiring room. No, we couldn’t get a refund on the unused portion of our ticket. Robyn and Julie fell asleep on the platform while I stood guard.
Just on daybreak, I fired up my stove, and woke them for coffee. An hour later, we boarded a bus for Khajuraho. It was not deluxe. I asked the driver if it was direct. He told me that the road was washed out. For the second time in twenty-four hours, we established that there was no way to get there directly on rubber wheels. I asked him if it was possible to reach our destination. He told me we would have to cross the river.
The ferry that waited for us didn’t look like it could cross the river. It was jimmy rig veda constructed, with rough-hewn planks and wrought iron brackets, into a shape that barely approximated the shape of a boat. The propulsion system stood on the bank, six tired thin chocolate gondoliers, leaning on their oars.
We boarded the boards. Then the Ambassador arrived. Not a statesman, a white automobile with a bent roof rack, and dice hanging from the rearview mirror. It was pushed onto the barge over four long shaky timbers, and took up most of the available space. Our raft had morphed into a Charon car ferry, except for the hundred passengers scrambling for deck space around the rubber wheels.
The girls wanted off. I convinced them to stay, but I didn’t have their view of the situation. They were looking at the river; I was looking at the shore-based activity. There was more going on in the river, so much more, the English had created a word for it. Torrent.
By the time the girls decided they wanted off again, we had launched. The oarsmen pulled for all they were worth, but that only got us sideways into the raging current. Wherever this river was going, we were going as well. And then we weren’t. Our raft rode ever so imperceptibly uphill, slowed, stopped, and began to revolve around its navel. We had drifted onto a rock in the middle of the river. The spinning car must have looked stupid from either riverbank but, out in the middle of the cataract, it only looked like we had come from batshit to bullshit into big shit.
According to the Rig Veda, the Earth was held on its back by a giant frog. Earthquakes occurred when he twitched and shuddered himself out of sleep. All the loud screams rotating around the rock in the middle of the Betwa River that day, were simply trying to wake the giant frog below.