I am almost obscenely fond of Seat61.com
. I have just spent a happy hour planning fantasy routes and itineraries along the route of the Silk Road. Some day, some day, etc.
So. This is 2012. For the first time since 1990, I slept through New Year entirely. I meant to stay up and I meant to stay up, but jet-lag hit me hard around 10pm. Terribly pathetic, of course. For the last week of 2011, I took Shim with me to India, and that, at least, was a good end to a very mixed year. In one week, we went (sometimes very briefly) to Delhi, Solan, Shimla, Chail, Chandigarh and Agra, and not disappearing from places between places, as you do on an aircraft: all the way the landscape between, stopping for coffee and chaat in dhabas, watching the mountains and the plains roll on past the windows, and the wheels raising the dust.
We went to Solan first. It's a small city in Himachal Pradesh, and it took us a day to travel there from Delhi, on a smooth flight into Chandigarh and then a boneshaking drive upwards.
My family's house in Solan is called "Chinar", which Google tells me is known in English merely as Planatus orientalis
, and it's on stilts on the side of the mountain heading down towards the valley. As a result the roof is on a level with the Kalka-Shimla railway line. It's a narrow-gauge railway, tiny, built a hundred years ago by the British to move to the summer capital from the plains to the mountains, 100km with more than eight hundred bridges, 103 tiny, numbered tunnels, climbing into the Himalaya metre by metre of perilous altitude until it reaches Shimla with the clouds beneath. I love everything about it.( Solan station [all pictures are Shim's] )
(Also, Railways! I guess most people who know me get to know after a while that I love trains (and planes, but not automobiles) with an irredeemable romantic love. Upon enquiry, my father sagely informed me that there is a gene on the 23rd chromosome that code for a love of railways of all kinds. This, he admits, is entirely a lie, but my father has never lived anywhere where you couldn't hear the sound of trains; my grandfather ran his household on railway time; my great-grandfather was the station master of New Delhi Railway Station.
And, me, I love trains: I love the vibration they make inside your bones, I love the lights streaming past in the dark, I love waking up for a moment in the middle of the night as the train passes through above. The world's as it ought to be when the train comes through on time. And then, take a train in India and you can go anywhere. You can take the train from Thruvanathapuram to Jammu. What a train is, is freedom.)( this is the night train )
From Solan, we drove up to Shimla, which I have described before in these metaphorical pages, and to Kali ka Tibba (it only means 'Kali's hilltop'), which is a hilltop temple at Chail, and you reach it through a meteoric rise in altitude that involves driving inches from a hundred-foot drop around bends. It's dizzying, and on the day we were there, a little transcendent: the sky was polar blue and the sun felt close. The family's temple of choice in Delhi is the Hanuman Mandir, where we go on Tuesdays where possible; it's large, chaotic, noisy and a little frightening, and monkeys steal your shoes. I am having trouble with religion, lately; I end up feeling like all those people who say, politically and spiritually I'm a lesbian, I'm just in a relationship with a man! (I do that too, sometimes.) Well, I am politically and by inclination an atheist - I'm just... not one.
That I'm not an atheist is a fact, not a fact like my height and eye colour but like how I'm a writer, and a thoughtful person, and in love with a particular person. But there's that and there's being a person whose faith carries her; who carries something of value around with her because of how the world is. It's easier in those high places, it was easier in that hilltop temple with the toothpaste-clean air, the polished marble, the single tree so wrapped with red and golden thread that you couldn't see the bark. It's a thoroughly modern
temple - it runs on solar power. And you remove your shoes and go barefoot, as you do in every temple everywhere, but the marble was freezing and salutary under your feet. I'm working on what kind of belief I have and want to have, but that was a wonderful, invigorating, close-to-the-sky place.( Kali ka tibba )
We came down from the mountains on the fourth day, drove to Chandigarh and took a bus on to Delhi. All of that was much less painful than I thought it would be. In Chandigarh we had lunch at the Indian Workers' Coffee Cooperative, which offers lunch for such strangely precise prices as Rs. 30.20. In Delhi the family's house is shut up at the moment, so we were staying in an apartment at Green Park Market, and from there we went to Agra to show Shim the Taj Mahal (which was beautiful, but very surreal - my family and I could be Indians and got Rs. 20 tickets, but pretending Shim wasn't a foreigner was more difficult; his ticket ended up an eyewatering Rs. 750). The Taj itself is, well, it's beautiful, and what more can you say about it, but I'm not very fond of Agra itself, which is hotter, dirtier, and dustier than Delhi, which is hardly a cool, clean, comfortable place in itself. I did like the camels, though. All camels have ridiculously long, flirtatious eyelashes and immensely disdainful expressions. Sadly, we did not get a picture of them.( the Taj Mahal )
And then, one day in Delhi - one day to see Rashtrapati Bhawan and India Gate. Having Shim along was delightful, but particularly because my aunt went to see the Taj Mahal for the first time, my mother went to see the president's residence and Parliament House for the first time. Both lived for years in Delhi. We went to Connaught Place and wandered, and got the Metro back to Green Park, and I was completely and utterly delighted by it. The Delhi Metro is new - well, ten years old, now, but new - and smooth and marvellous. (My mother was talking mournfully about how much more fun college would have been for her, if the metro had existed then.)
The metro is symptomatic, but, generally, Delhi is a different city from the one I first knew. Of course it's been twenty years, but it's larger, louder, noisier, chaotic, as you would expect, and I'm not sure the march towards development is permeating down to all levels. In fact, I know it isn't. But we came back on December 30th, drove to the airport through the fog, and this time, again, more than last time, more than the time before, I didn't want to go, I didn't want to go, don't make me go, I don't want to go home, I want to stay home. And I don't know what
to do about it. I don't. My family reported that after we left, they went back from the airport to a four-hour power cut and we left at just the right moment. But given the lack of power, given the chaos, given the dirt and dust and stray dogs, given the mountains, given the temples, given the city and the railways, I wanted so much to stay.
I read a lot of Chetan Bhagat novels this week, and the dedication in his latest is: To my country, who called me home
. Bhagat is like that only: words have power in simplicity. I don't know what to do about it.