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It wasn’t the jostling of the train traveling along the tracks that woke me, but rather the lack of movement. That, and the soft crooning of a Bollywood song coming from a radio somewhere in our train car.
I was surprised by how well I’d slept, and the first thing I thought of when I blinked open my eyes was to check that I hadn’t been robbed during the night. To my relief, everything, including my shoes, were still in the bunk’s net basket.
Rolling on my side, I peered down from my bunk. My eyes alighted gratefully on a paper cup of chai rising to meet me. My husband stood below, grinning. Up and down the aisles behind him there was a frantic jostling as people rushed to get off the train and descend into the city of pilgrims, Katra, like hyper hens exiting a henhouse.
“We pulled in thirty minutes ago,” my husband told me as I sipped my chai, and felt the first wonderful burst of sugary sweet caffeine kick in.
It took me only a few minutes to ready myself to get off the train too. I drank down the rest of my tea, donned my shoes, and followed my Indian family with my bag slung over my shoulder. Despite being well-rested, I felt otherwise pretty gross. I wanted desperately to wash my face and brush my teeth, but the train bathrooms were unusable at that point, and I’d have to wait until we were at the guesthouse.
We stumbled through Katra’s little train station, bleary-eyed and disorientated. It was cleaner than Delhi’s, although this was probably due to the fact that there are fewer people coming in and out of Katra than India’s capital city.
Similar to Delhi though, and probably nearly every other main station in the country, people were crouching outside on mats and pieces of cardboard, their innaction giving the feeling that they were a permanent part of the local scenery. There was a certain orderliness to these squatters, though, that I hadn’t seen in Delhi. They appeared neater and more well-ordered, sitting quietly on their mats with their bundles gathered nearby, than the chaos I’d witnessed in Delhi. Perhaps they hadn’t been at the station long, and hence had not yet descended into madness, or maybe these were pilgrims still high from their spiritual journey.
We crossed the wide courtyard to the three-wheeled autos lined up near the curb. It was only three people per auto, so we bartered and bargained to hire four, loaded our people and our bags, and set off through the town to the guesthouse.
Katra gave me the impression of a quiet little village overwhelmed by a city of people. There were no traffic lights in this small town, so it was pretty much a free-for-all (not that traffic lights make that much of a difference in India because no one pays attention to them anyway). Cows wandered the streets, sometimes lying down in the middle of traffic and refusing to move, despite the rapacious honks and shouts of the motorcycle, auto, and car drivers swerving around them.
These animals are sacred in Hindu mythology, and hence must be protected and cared for. Hindus don’t eat beef (and most Hindus refuse meat altogether), and look to cows as symbols of the Earth’s bounty. Which is why you’ll discover that cows wander pretty freely in India and tend to be cared for by the entire community.
I’ve seen starving dogs, cats, and pretty much every other kind of suffering animal, but have never seen a cow experiencing visible discomfort. They are well-fed and fat, their confidence in their importance apparent in the way they interact with the masses of humans that make up the Indian subcontinent. When one decides to take a nap in the middle of the road, it becomes a sort of boulder in the stream of traffic: we make way for the cow, not the other way around.
It wasn’t yet six in the morning, but Katra was already lit by the glow of the sun coming up over the mountains. The air smelled fresh, pollution not yet being a major problem here, and I felt a wave of excitement and anticipation wash over me. We would be making the climb up the mountain to the famous Vaishno Devi temple – a mere 4-5 hour hike—later that day.
But first, I was grateful to learn, we’d be freshening up at a local guesthouse. Even better, Indian Uncle informed us all, we would be receiving VIP treatment thanks to his amazing networking skills.
I was soon to discover that VIP treatment in India didn’t mean what I thought it did.
We approached a gated complex with tall white walls hugging the buildings close inside. There was a canteen, and five or six buildings of guest rooms scattered around a central parking lot. The autos trundled through the gates, one behind the other like ducklings crossing the road, and we pulled over in front of one of the guesthouses.
This is where things began to get interesting, and I received my first taste of Indian ‘VIP treatment’.
Indian Family bustled into the guesthouse lobby and waited as Indian Uncle approached the front desk. Less than five minutes later he was back, looking a little crestfallen. From what I gathered, his colleague (who was supposed to make the booking for us) didn’t have nearly as much clout as he’d led Uncle to believe, and there was no reservation waiting for us.
What followed was an hour or so of back and forth as Uncle and various other members of the family went to the front desk to try their hand at convincing them to rent us a room.
This is a prime example of how things function in India. You don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer, but demand again and again until you wear the person down and get what you want. Funnily enough, this is mirrored perfectly in Bollywood movies, usually when it comes to the hero convincing the heroine to fall in love with him, and it’s a real chicken-or-egg situation: are Bollywood films influenced by the culture, or the other way around?
Our situation wasn’t in any way as glamorous as the Bollywood films I’d seen, though. I couldn’t understand the rapid Hindi being fired back and forth between my family members and the individuals at reception, but it seemed to be progressing from cajoling to threatening.
And then, they finally gave in and grudgingly allowed us a single room. It was almost 7am as we trudged up the cool marble stairs to the next floor. The room was padlocked from the outside–something which seems to be common in India–and we unlocked it and filed inside, most of us heading for the wide bed that took up the center.
The thick floral curtains, pulled close against the morning light, both looked and smelled dusty. I probably wouldn’t have opened them anyway, because even in the dimmed light I could see the room was filthy, and the bedspread on the bed crumpled, as if someone had been startled from their sleep by our entrance and left through the window before we could spot them.
I was desperate though. Desperate to use the toilet, to take a shower, to clean up. All of us were. The men left to go back downstairs and negotiate a second room. My sister-in-law made a beeline for the bathroom. I heard the door shut, and waited, sitting gingerly at the edge of the bed, for my turn. When she came out, she said in a matter-of-fact way, “The light doesn’t work.”
The bathroom was a minimalist affair with an in-floor toilet, a sink, and, I think, a shower spigot somewhere. What it didn’t have was a window, so that when you shut the door you were enveloped in a heavy darkness.
Standing in the doorway, I tried to memorize the location of everything so I wouldn’t pee in the wrong spot or, even worse, accidentally put my foot down the toilet. The bathroom was so tiny though, that the door was within arm’s reach from the toilet. I positioned myself by the light of the door and, just when I was ready to drop my pants, swung the flimsy wooden thing shut.
I squatted in the dark, debating internally if this was better or worse than my bathroom experience on the train. At least here I couldn’t see the possible horrors around me. Then it hit me: I couldn’t see the possible horrors around me. I tried not to think of snakes crawling up the toilet (don’t ask me why, but this seemed logical at the time), or large bugs lurking in dark corners.
By the time I’d completed this hurdle and stepped out into the light again, good news has arrived via my husband. They’d managed to get a second room! The men took over the current room, and all the women shuffled down the hall to a cleaner one with actual functioning light-bulbs.
Hierarchy is important in Indian families, and this was applied to the order in which the women showered. The elder, my mother-in-law, went first, followed by Indian Auntie, my sister-in-law, me, and finally the little maid that had accompanied us all the way from Hyderabad to serve as an assistant to my mother-in-law.
Even so, when my sister-in-law finished her shower, she came out to inform me that the water was cold. She seemed very worried about this, as if the revelation would somehow break my spirit.
“We’ll go down and tell them to get hot water,” she said.
“Did anyone else shower with hot water?” I asked.
“No, it’s only cold. But we can tell them.”
I was lambasted. Apparently my elders could all handle cold showers but I, the foreigner, was simply too delicate for that?
“Look,” I said, too tired at this point to try and untangle her reasoning. “I really don’t care. I just want to bathe.”
There are few things as luxurious to a traveler who has just completed a tricky journey than a good shower with clean water. And yes, in this case the chill of the water added something to it, waking me up and giving me an extra layer of freshness.
I exited the bathroom dressed in a clean kurta and pyjamas and feeling bright and fantastic, although now that one discomfort was taken care of a second presented itself: I was hungry. The ladies were fluttering about like butterflies, prettying themselves up in preparation for our pilgrimage.
Indian Auntie and my sister-in-law gave me a bindi — the decorative dot for my forehead that Indian women all over the country love to wear — and then Auntie dipped her forefinger into a small tin of vermillion powder and stroked it across the parting in my hair. This red marking was a visible cue that indicated my status as a married woman.
It’s not common tradition in India to wear wedding rings, so women reveal where they are in life through various means. It’s always been a little puzzling to me that a woman must show the world if she is single, or married, or widowed (in which case you would wear a white sari), but a man doesn’t have to. If anything, I see it as an indication of how, in Indian culture, a woman’s value is always tied to a man’s. While he can be revered and admired for a stellar career and success outside of his married/home life, a woman’s value is still defined by whether or not she’s married, how many children she has, and finally, if her husband is alive or not.
Still, I was pleased to hear Indian Auntie say that I am lucky to be married to a good man, and I had to agree. Because while I do follow the cultural norms and traditions to please my Indian family, I know my husband sees me as a strong, independent entity. And I should say that all of our married Indian friends of the same age have similar relationships. India is changing with the younger generations.
We met the men out in the hall and tramped downstairs to the canteen. After a quick meal of sweet chai, paratha, and dahl, we were ready to head up the mountain!
My mother-in-law is very ill with Parkinson’s disease, and we’d known long before taking the pilgrimage that there wasn’t any way she’d be able to complete a trek up the mountain. Luckily, Vaishno Devi offered an alternative for the elderly, the lazy, or the ill, as long as you could pay for it. It was a sort of fast-track, express pilgrimage, if you will: a helicopter ride that would take pilgrims halfway up the mountain, from where they could mount mules, horses, or palanquins, and complete the rest of the journey on foot.
Indian Uncle assured us that he knew someone at the helipad, and that this would be where the VIP treatment would really kick in. At that point, I was starting to suspect that Indian Uncle either wasn’t as important as he claimed, or his definition of VIP was very different from my own. But I hoped for the best as we climbed into the autos that would take us to the helipad.
And, once there, we stood and waited. And waited some more. Indian Uncle had disappeared into the office and everyone else was chattering away in Hindi that I couldn’t understand. I understood body language though, and asked my husband what was the matter.
“There’s no VIP treatment,” he whispered to me, notably irritated. “We’ve got to wait in line like everyone else.”
Even without VIP treatment, the way everything was run seemed quite muddled. First, we had to wait in line to register, whereupon we were given a receipt with our tentative fly time. This was 3-4 hours later, but we weren’t allowed to go have a nice meal, relax, or do something more enjoyable in the meantime. After all, this was India! We were expected to wait on location in case, by some miracle, our fly time got bumped up.
And so I found myself sandwiched between my mother-in-law and Indian Auntie on a plastic upholstered couch in a hot waiting room full of people swatting away flies and staring off into space.
I should mention here that Indians are pros at waiting for things — it’s a sort of special Indian superpower. Because everything is so chaotic and unreliable in India, it’s par for the course to know you’ll probably spend a significant part of your life waiting for things to (sort of) work themselves out. And what I found most fascinating was that no one seemed to require entertainment of any sort.
They’d stare off into space, as docile as Buddhas, then engage in conversation for a bit before breaking off to stare into space again. I, on the other hand, was going out of my mind with boredom. I’m always carrying a book with me, and on this occasion I happened to be toting Paul Theroux’s The Lower River. And so, since there was nothing else to do, I cracked it open and started reading.
I was just getting lost in the dramas of the book’s main character when my husband took a seat next to me and said, “You should put that away. It’s rude to read. You’re supposed to be interacting with the family.”
Apparently, much like VIP treatment means something else in India, so does the word interaction. Because when I looked around, everyone seemed to be either spaced out, or talking boredly. No one appeared to care that I was or wasn’t talking or also staring off into space. But maybe it was a cultural thing I wasn’t aware of. After all, I’d never seen anyone in public reading for pleasure. Obviously, there was a different protocol for waiting around for something that could happen anywhere in the next 40 minutes to 4 hours. I closed my book. Such is the life of the wife of an Indian man.
Time didn’t exactly fly by (as you can probably imagine), but I was just starting to get into the groove of staring at nothing and swatting away flies when it was our turn to board the helicopter. There were two helicopters that were making constant journeys up and down the mountain. While one was going up, the other was on its way down. Apparently, they were flown by former military pilots, a fact which I found reassuring. Not so reassuring was the thought that these pilots must be exhausted if all they did all day was fly back and forth across the same terrain.
It was hard to believe that my first time ever in a helicopter would be in India, but there I was, climbing up next to the pilot while praying fervently that the maintenance on this flight machine was up-to-date. I didn’t particularly like the idea of crashing and dying in a ball of flames. Sure, people might say, “She died doing what she loved”, but I wanted to stick around to keep doing the things I loved for much longer.
The flight up the mountain was akin to how I imagined riding a drunk dragonfly might be like. The helicopter wobbled, threatening to topple every other second. The maid, who was sat next to me, bellowed in my ear in a panic. I prayed.
I was so relieved when it landed, and, like a naive dork, thought the worst was behind me. But I was wrong. Because the moment I got off the helicopter was when the real bedlam began.
Read about the first part of my Indian pilgrimage adventure here!
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