How do I describe my feelings about my journey to India? There and back again? Not quite. There was a ways to go before I returned home.
I left the house as early as I could. I kissed Isis goodbye and I arrived at the minivan station before the drivers and the ticket seller did. As I sat waiting for them, I got this very strong uneasy feeling about the whole thing.
I nearly went back home to pretend I had overslept and missed my flight. My stomach was churning with the thought of going back, and trying to recapture what has, thus far, been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Then a strong voice from deep inside stirred: “No Ivanji, you’ve been promising to do this for three years, so just fucking let yourself go!”
I slept soundly through the ride to Bangkok. The taxi ride to the uncharted Don Muang airport, a small source of anxiety in itself, was an easy one. Check in, immigration, and time to kill. Then I remembered, no book, no iPod…
I made my way to the bookshop and browsed through countless pop-lit versions of the same crime thriller, and the now-3050 Shades of Grey. Finally, I stumbled upon a brand new edition of “The Hobbit”, with the movie poster as its cover. Now, strangely enough, I had never read it. So I bought it and proceeded to read while waiting to board the plane.
Air Asia is shit, but as far as it goes, this was a pleasant enough flight. Tore through the book and landed. Soon enough I was in India, in a taxi, and on my way to Howrah station, on the banks of holy Howgli (as Ganga is called as it transverses Kolkata). I went to the ticketing office and dealt with my first queue in this trip. I smiled and put on my best attitude through it.
Those of you who’ve suffered an Indian queue before, know that there is really only one thing you can do in these situations: become Indian, wobble your head and smile, while you push and shove your way to the window. At the window a very pleasant man kindly told me that there were no available tickets to Allahabad. He also pulled me into a little side office and told me to wait to speak to his supervisor, who was attending to another customer.
I had already pictured this moment in my head, the awkward moment when I would have to offer some baksheesh (bribe) if I wanted to get anywhere. To my great surprise, that is not what happened. Instead, the man gave the address and good directions to the foreign quota reservation office. This is a place where foreigners sit comfortably in couches, while waiting for their queue number to be called, and talk to a representative. No head wobbling, smiling, pushing or shoving necessary (though the first two always go a long way in India).
All this time I had resigned myself to the possibility of having to spend the weekend in Kolkata. I had picked a hotel, and the sights I wanted to check out, as well as a couple of promising restaurants… Then lo and behold! There was an available ticket leaving in a few hours, and conveniently arriving in Allahabad in the morning. There was, however, no return ticket for Monday night. I would have to return to Kolkata on Sunday, and spend Monday in the city waiting for my early Tuesday morning flight. Little did I know that this would be a very fortunate turn of events.
With my tickets in hand, I was finally free to savor my first proper thali in three years. Papadams, chapatti, dal, raita, jeera rice, aloo mattar, and paneer chilli, accompanied by a mango lassi. Yum!
I boarded the train and I found that my berth companions were other foreigners. This is not at all unusual when you buy foreign quota tickets. In this case, it was four fascinating gentlemen from the Ivory Coast. As I sat, the eldest extended his hand and said, “bonsoir monsieur, comment allez vous?” Suddenly I found myself having to reach deep into my French.
The four (very devout) men were on a tour of India’s holy Muslim sites; and, at present, on a journey from Kolkata to New Delhi. We had very interesting conversations about our respective countries, religion, football… They had never heard of the Kumbh Mela, and insisted that if I was, as I said, interested in religious festivals, and mass gatherings, I should do the pilgrimage to Mecca. I told them it was definitely in my plans.
I arrived in Allahabad tired but exhilarated. Already I could tell that the city was well beyond capacity. I made my way through throngs of pilgrims until I found a hotel. I had no intention of staying, but I was curious to find out how much they would charge. 10,000 rupees! ($185) I laughed and I left.
I found an Internet café and I browsed through my Mela resources to find where to stay. Things were looking a bit uncertain… I had not properly done my homework. I decided to ask the café owner for advice, and he suggested I go to the river and pitch my tent right on the beach. He claimed there would be lots of other campers there and it would be no problem. With that, I hopped on a cycle rickshaw and was finally en route to Sangam, the confluence of the three holy rivers (two real, one mythical): Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati.
The rickshaw took me as far as he could, and then I started walking. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of climbing over this little hill and seeing the never-ending sea of pilgrims, tents, saddhus, and babas. I walked in a daze for the next few hours, from camp to camp, from saddhu to baba. I sat, I listened, I chanted, and I absorbed everything that was there for me to take in. I saw a saddhu wrap his penis around a thick stick and then pass it behind his legs, so that his genitals were behind him.
Meanwhile, another saddhu climbed on his back and took a few puffs of his chillum, to the exited roar of the gathered crowd. Then the first saddhu proceeded to repeat the feat, but this time with a very broad dagger. I met a kid who begged me never to forget him. He told me he had met many foreigners at the Mela, and he seemed particularly impressed by a man from “the London”. He and his sidekick warned me about the evil naga babas (saddhus), who care for no one, and should not be talked to or even approached. Then they invited me to their tent to meet his parents. At this point I still had no place pitch the tent, so I figured it would be a good idea to ask the kid’s folks.
As expected, these people were very friendly. They showed me into a tent and introduced me to their baba, who was sitting on a platform with his acolytes surrounding him. They gave me a cup of masala chai and they asked a few very basic questions. Five minutes passed and my little friend, who had not come into the tent with me, came in and asked me to follow him out. The baba had decided, without uttering a word, that I could not stay with them. They suggested that I go where all the other foreigners go, and they roughly pointed me in that direction.
I decided to ask a policeman where would be the best place to pitch the tent. By now the sun was starting to set, and the issue was pressing. The policeman called other policemen and stopped a jeep that was passing by. They held a conference and decided that it would be best if I stayed where all the other foreigners stay, in a camp across the river. So they wrote a note, pointed me in the right direction, and told me to show the note to other policemen along the way so I wouldn’t get lost. The last officer to read the note looked intensely at me for a moment, asked for my name, shook my hand, and told me I was home.
Home was the camp of a baba woman whose acolytes were mostly foreigners. I found one of them and I introduced myself. His name was Joshua, he was from Colorado, and he had no authority to decide over such matters. He said that at the moment they were all too busy and that I should wait for a while until he could talk to the higher ups. I sat and watched as the baba woman waved a massive peacock feather fan over devotees who waited in line for the honor.
I saw another man, who at first glance looked like a Buddhist monk, sitting to the side. Then I realized he was no monk, he was just dressed in orange. Furthermore, I realized that, like me, he was asking for a place to stay. I introduced myself and found out that his name is Kong, like Hong Kong he said, and that he is from Shanghai. “What a coincidence!” I said, “I’ve just been to Hong Kong, and I’ve said for quite some time that I would like to live in Shanghai.” Eventually, a higher up came and told us that, pending her approval, we could spend the night. In the meantime, Kong and I left the camp and had a delicious meal next to people shitting and pissing. By the time we got back it was settled; we could stay the night.
In my naïveté I imagined that these people were inviting us to share their cozy tents. In reality, they invited us to share floor (or stage) space with a couple hundred beggars, like us, who came in search of food and shelter. It was wonderful. We settled in our spots and got ready to sleep. It was relatively early, yet dark, damp, and very cold. All through the night the baba, her acolytes, and a few priests performed puja and chanted. I half slept until about three in the morning, when the chanting got so intense, it was just impossible to sleep. Kong and I packed our stuff, sat listening to the chanting for a while, and then started the long way to Sangam.
We walked a few kilometers. Then we stopped to watch Ganga in the twilight for some time before crossing the bridge that would lead us to the bathing areas. When we finally got to the main area I made a tactical mistake and got us stuck behind a wooden fence. Policemen with whistles and sticks were guarding it. We met a Hungarian guy, Chris, who was supposed to take a train to Varanasi an hour later… yeah, right!
Chris kept begging the policemen to let us through, and after a couple of waves of ecstatic bathers, including nagas, babas, and laymen, he convinced them! After that I only saw enough of Chris to wish him safe journey, and now that I know the things that happened to people on their way out of Allahabad, I really do hope that he made it safely to Varanasi.
Kong and I were now free to roam around Sangam! What an experience… Everything I had dreamed of. Saw lots of nagas, baba floats, and regular people in religious fervor, all to the rally of Hare Mahadev! I also had a chance to take my bath in Ganga right there, in the main spot. Afterwards, we slowly made it back into town. It was nine o’ clock in the morning.
As we walked back into town, there were stands offering free chai, cookies, and food. This was a very welcome gift, as we were both ravenous. I walked Kong to the bus stand, and, as with Chris, I really hope that he made it safely to Varanasi. Afterwards, I just sat on the street and read my book for some time. I didn’t want to go to the train station yet. My train was not until 9:00 in the evening, and it was now 10:00 in the morning. I made it to the train station around 1:00 and found a spot to sit and wait.
As I was sitting in the main hall with thousands of other people, another Westerner approached me. He had an Indian companion, and he was quite desperate to get the hell out of Allahabad. Michael Joshua (he goes by either name as his mood dictates) had had a shitty morning. He had had a fallout with his childhood friend and traveling partner. It seems his friend wanted to stay at the Mela and bum around the camps, but Mike was ready to move on. He wasn’t sure where to go, so his Indian friend got him a ticket to Mughal Sarai, 15 kilometers outside of Varanasi. He tried to get on that train, but was thoroughly discouraged when he saw people hanging from it, and the police pushing them in like cattle. He decided instead to get a waiting-list ticket for my train to Kolkata, and we made plans to spend the next day together there.
The train was supposed to arrive half an hour late, at 9:30, but just to be cautious, we decided to head over to the platform at around 8:20. As we climbed up the stairs to the bridge that crosses over the tracks and platforms, we found ourselves completely surrounded by a chaotic mass of bodies. Some people were going one way, others in the opposite direction. Nobody was going anywhere really. The police blew their whistles insistently and used long sticks to hit people and direct them any way they wanted. I felt somebody grab me all over and put his hands down my pants, in an obvious attempt to steal whatever they could from me. Fortunately, I held on to my purse and safety pouch, and his attempts were not successful.
Josh later told me that the same happened to him. We had to go to platform 6, and we had barely made it past platform 2. Luckily Mike had the clarity to stop me and we went down to platform 2. All the platforms were crowded to a ridiculous extent. Afraid that we were going to miss our train, as we had spent the last forty-five minutes fighting our way through crowds, we decided to jump down to the train tracks and run to our platform that way.
We ran through piss, diarrhea, rats, vomit, you name it! We made it to our platform only to find out that the train was now delayed for another hour. That’s when we met Shampoo and Conditioner. This are obviously not their real names, but I cannot remember the one that I learned (which sounded a lot like Shampoo), and I never found out his friend’s name (ergo, Conditioner).
They were two very nice Kolkatans from very posh backgrounds, who were just as outside their element as we were, so we commiserated for as long as it took for us to get onto the train. They were the ones that told us that not five minutes before we met, 30 people had been killed in a stampede on another one of the bridges over the platforms; just like the one we were on moments before. It was a very sad and horrifying moment as the bodies were bundled up in sheets and taken away right in front of our eyes. In protest, hundreds of people laid themselves across the tracks and stopped the trains from moving.
The protesters ultimately relented, and service resumed. However, there were so many people waiting to get on a train — most of them extremely poor and with no tickets — that they set up special trains to take them out of Allahabad. This was a good measure, but it was badly implemented and insufficient. Desperate, the people would jump onto any train that came, making it really difficult — sometimes impossible — for people with tickets to get to their seats.
The situation kept getting worse and worse. They kept announcing that our train was coming, but then delay it for another hour. Josh and I realized that when the train finally came, there would be no way for us to get into the second-class sleepers, as they would be completely taken over. We decided we would go into the air-conditioned sleepers, which were properly controlled by the train staff. Shiva forbid that posh Indians would have to mix with those people!
Finally, twelve hours after it was supposed to arrive, our train pulled into the station. Shampoo and Conditioner went into their first-class cabin, and Mike and I sat at an air-conditioned sleeper. Our plan was to ask the guard if we could pay him the difference, and he would let us stay there. He had none of it. He told us to go to our second-class sleeper, and that he would be along in a little while to make sure we got our seats.
We had twelve cars to go through. We tried walking back, and managed to get past the pantry car and one of the sleepers, albeit with much difficulty; but it was impossible to get through the next sleeper as the floor was covered with people. We decided to settle in the space between the bathroom and the door of the aircon sleeper. We sat there chatting to people who would come for a smoke, or to the toilet.
One man decided to intercede for us. He told us that we should aim for the first-class cabins, as they would surely be empty. He claimed that only VIPs travel in first-class, and there were no VIPs on this train apart from us. Shampoo and Conditioner would have begged to disagree.
He talked to a train employee, who took us to another one, and yet another one, until in the end we found a sympathetic guard who let us pay an exorbitant 1000 rupees each, but after eighteen hours we finally had beds in the two-tier air-conditioned sleeper. No first-class for us, since we were not VIPs after all.
The train was theoretically meant to take fourteen hours to reach Kolkata. We thought that we would arrive around 10:30 in the evening. Josh and I made plans to get a room in Kolkata with a hot shower and a chance for me to clean up before the last leg of my journey home. We went straight to sleep, but after a couple of hours I woke up.
I sat on the steps by the door watching the mustard fields go by. Mustard fields, ancient looking modern villages, ancient looking young people, temples on hills… Inspired by these sights, I took out my phone and started writing this essay in little 1500 character memos. Exhaustion and a low battery got the best of me, and I went back to sleep. I woke up around ten, thinking that we were probably almost there, and fell right back to sleep.
At 3:45 the guards started to wake everybody up and announced that we would be arriving shortly. Shortly… between the wait and the ride I had mentally left Allahabad thirty-two hours before; there was nothing short about any of it.
I stunk; I had not had a shower since I left Petchaburi, and I had not even changed my clothes, but I had made it back to Kolkata.
One of the people that we met on the train was this Danny-De-Vito-as the-Penguin-but-thirty-years-later-looking guy from the Seattle area. His name was Lyle, and he was an Indian film critic, who travelled around the country touring the festivals and writing about them.
The train had stopped momentarily, and there he came out of the bathroom, panicking because his glasses had gone down the toilet. So he crawled under the train, half of his body sticking out over the rails, and he recovered his glasses, which, fortunately, had not fallen right on top of his own turd. He got back on the steps as the train started to move, and I had flashbacks to three years ago and another recovery of lost goods fallen from an Indian train…
We met Lyle again in Kolkata, and we decided to get some snacks and sit in the waiting room. Josh and Lyle were waiting for a decent hour to check into a hotel, and I for a better time to head straight to the airport. The conversation was very stimulating; Lyle had been around the world and back again, and had extraordinary adventures to tell.
At around 6:00 I took a taxi to the airport, where I sat reading the last chapters of “The Hobbit”.
So I made it, to Allahabad and back to Petchaburi. The rest of the trip was uneventful (airplane, taxi, minivan, and bicycle), yet as is always the case, once I knew I was almost there, I could not wait to be home, give Isis a big kiss, take a long shower, and go to sleep in the comfort of my bed.
Was it worth it? Would I recommend that others do it too? I’m not sure… So I ask myself: was it worth it for the elderly woman in the green saree, whom I saw bundled up in a sheet, dead, being taken away from the train platform? A Hindu would say yes; because she died shortly after cleansing herself of all her sins, and she will probably reincarnate as a higher being.
I remember telling Josh Mike at some point that I was very glad I went to the Kumbh Mela, but would not be going to the next one three years from now. What I witnessed was an once-in-a-lifetime event. This Maha Kumbh Mela marked the end of a 144-year cycle in the Hindu calendar. I figure, if this was such a powerful cleansing I just went through, then I shouldn’t worry about my sins for a while…
Maybe I will wait another 12 years before I go back; who knows? And to those of you who haven’t been to it yet: what are you waiting for? We are not getting any younger!
Ivanji Zadu Baba is a wanderlust-afflicted professional educator who has been based in China for several years. When not recounting his travel tales he can be found on Instagram.
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