The man’s face was like a book, but unreadable. It was so weathered, deeply darkened by time spent under scorching sun. The dark eyes seemed to hold stories, epics of unforgiving landscapes, a life where nothing came easy, where every day was survival and little more than that. My eyes met his for the briefest second, his train was just leaving. It was an all-blue second class sleeper. No AC, no windows. Battered benches. People spilling out into the walkways between the carriages. Their faces all spelled something similar. Restless lives. Funny that ours should overlap for that short second.
There was a family on the platform across from where I stood. My backpack was the ubiquitous Kanken. They had none. A few jute bags, the young girls’ heads were shaved, they’d been to some temple. They had on their best saris, powder pink, shocking blue, the men wore all white. They slept under the benches of the platform, I smiled at one of the girls, she looked away.
It was some sort of traveller’s epiphany, if the concept exists. I realized why people did it, why half of the western world seemed to want to take one of those trains across India. To get lost, to wander, to meet the real people, to hear their stories. I’d never been interested. Maybe it was a kind of complacency that came from being lucky enough to have lived there, traveled around lots since before I can even remember. But I’d scoff at the mere idea of an Indian rail trip. And there I was, waiting for the Shatabdi express from Bangalore to Mysore. It wasn’t one of those really rough trains; the people were all vaguely middle class, a few foreigners in the mix, but it was a taste of trains in a country that relies pretty heavily on them. Pigeons fluttered around the rooftop of the station, on the peeling panes of the railway house. My granpdpa was next to me, looking up at them. Years and years ago he’d stayed there, with grandma when my mum was still tiny, when the railways were a booming and well financed asset, before the pigeons claimed the rooftops for their own. His eyes are dark blue, always thoughtful, I could see him drift, his eyes, too, they were filled with something.
Bangalore didn’t fade away peacefully. The urban crush stayed, shanty towns seemed to rattle as our train chugged past, testament to a city that was growing quicker than its limbs could carry it . Nothing unexpected there, a stark reminder where you were. But it did fade to a luscious patchwork of green. Village life, pure and simple. Oxen ploughing the fields, buffalo here and there. At the railway crossing a lone rickshaw would stand, people were working the fields with scythes, growing maize and tall grasses. The sky was bright blue, the soil was deep red, the train was moving slowly and the sun was streaming in. My sister and I wanted to jump off the train, take off into that green wilderness, sit in the coconut groves in the shade. I could imagine the gentle rasp of the big leaves, the singing of tropical birds. So far from the chaos and dust of the city, from what you expect of this country.
Mysore revealed itself, over the next afternoon and morning, to take life at a much more doable place than Bangalore. We’d rented a little apartment near the Chamundi hills, it teetered on a cross roads. From the balcony we watched a cow try to steal coconuts from a vendor, a fruit seller under a mango tree. Flame of the forest lined the streets, school girls in starchy blue uniforms tied their hair in braids knotted with jasmine. At Mysore Palace throngs of people stripped off their shoes to wander the halls with all their glory from the days of the Raja, I promptly turned my back on the monument and took photos of the people instead, a riot of color, confetti at an Italian wedding. Mysore felt less – less transient than Bangalore, the streets near the apartment seemed like the residents had lived there forever, there was a feeling of community that Bangalore couldn’t quite muster.
On our last morning the owner of the apartment offered to take my sister and I on a hike in the Chamundi hills, 1200 steps to a sacred Hindu temple complex. We left before light, his radio blared out the morning prayers, the Sanskrit words shrouded in ancient mystery. We were by no means the earliest on the steps, locals were flocking down as we started to climb. There were others taking the steps purely for the sport; local boys did the whole trip at a run with Bollywood pop screaming out of their mobiles, the devout stopped at each step to make an offering with red and orange powders. Bare foot. Halfway to the top stood a man, I’ll call him a sadhu though I don’t know exactly what he was, he sung a haunting tune, maybe also in Sanskrit. Mournful words, robes all white, a graying beard, looking at the world through guarded eyes.
The temple complex was unremarkable, it was too foggy to really get a good view of the city. Some of the trees bore light pink blossom, macaques stole bananas offered to the gods. There were more tourists climbing as we went down, the sadhu had barely progressed, but I had a feeling he wasn’t in it for the sake of the climb or the dawn-lit photographs.
We left Mysore that afternoon, back on the rails, Mysore station was quieter than Bangalore, we were on the first platform and I couldn’t really see the second class trains. But I knew that the people would be there, people who’d have seen the stars pass through those grilled windows, people who’d have come, barefoot, to climb up to the temple for the blessing. When I was unpacking, I found my all white Stan Smiths, the shoes I’d stupidly worn on the hike to the temples. The toes had little marks of red and yellow, from where offerings had been made on the steps. I’d like to think that we’d been blessed too, in our own way.
I lived in Bangalore a while ago and I consider myself a bit of an India veteran buuut this was my first time really travelling as a tourist. funny. anyway, if you are interested in a very short, doable rail trip:
– the indian rail system is quite clearly laid out for the AC, civilized type of train we’re talking about 🙂 the Shatabdi Express goes non-stop Bangalore to Mysore in about 2 hours. You can book tickets online, the official website is the IRCTC site but it’s not at all user friendly, I thought the site Book My Trip was much easier, a lot like expedia or anything. If you shop around I’m sure there are others and trains are really affordable anyway.
-in Mysore we stayed in a serviced apartment because we prefer to cook and do our own thing. The Red Lotus Suites were really close to the Chamundi hills and the palace but a fair bit away from the real city centre which we didn’t have time to visit. The owner was also very helpful with organising taxis etc. They’re simple but clean and spacious. Uber is huge here for taxis.
– we visited Mysore palace which wasn’t architecturally incredible to be honest but culturally was fascinating so it’s worth a visit, there is also a rose garden which is nice. After the Taj mahal, it is also the second most visited tourist spot in India!
– I think we probably enjoyed the steps to the temple in the Chamundi Hills most, it’s a must do thing in Mysore apparently. Just be aware that some people do it for the religious aspect so just wear the usual respectful gear and you’ll be fine. It gets very hot very quickly so plan on arriving by 6am, the pink skies at dawn are also gorgeous.
– we also visited this Ashram. I’m no hippy dippie chakra talking person but it wasn’t really like that. There is a rehabilation centre for birds with a pretty aviary, a couple of temples and a bonsai garden which we all loved. It’s quiet and not too crowded and very green.
I will include more details about Bangalore in my next post, as I said I lived here for a bit so I know a couple of things about the place 😉 Anyways I hope you found this post interesting, if you are planning something similar you can always get in touch and I’ll see if I can help. Sorry for the dearth of info about the trains themselves.
And I’d like to thank all of you lovely people who read nutmeg and pear, even once and a while. If there is anything you’d especially like to see on nutmeg and pear, please let me know, I’d love to hear what you think. Any certain recipes you’d like? Anything you’re seeing too much?
From what I hear 2016 was a bit rough for some people, so I really hope that 2017 is amazing for you all. Wishing you the brightest New Year’s and hoping it brings you and your people lots of goodness. xo