Cheng Chin Yuen

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Patna Prison (4th – 5th Mar)

Patna’s railway station at midnight seems to part-time as a shelter for the homeless. Blanketed from head to toe, these unknown bodies scatter themselves all over the wide platform, oblivious to the screeching breaks, barrage of announcements and the stench of urine. Whatever little they own is bundled up and protected by using it as a pillow. The station at this time is still busy and the hardy people of Patna who have a longer wait for their trains join the homeless on the dirty floor. It is easy to differentiate the two, just count the number of bags. Locals on the trains seem to carry tons with them in at least two suitcases or duffel bags. Those who are better off also have a groundsheet or extra lungi as a base. How they manage to sleep is phenomenal.

The most pathetic resident railway beggar is a young boy who must have been about 13. He has lost the use of both his limbs and flops on his torso to get around. His right leg is slung over his right shoulder the way a soldier slings his rifle. If he turns his head to the right, he will end up smelling his foot, that’s the extent of the damage. The metal begging bowl is pushed a little distance in front of him before he flops to catch up with it. So he goes…push…flop…push…flop on a filthy floor reeking of urine. When we arrive, workers were actually splashing water on the platforms and link-bridges which ironically seem to liberate the smell.

As luck would have it, the Retiring Rooms were all ‘full’ and the dormitory was only for men so we ended up in the Ladies Waiting Room which had two other wives in it with their men. Unsurprisingly, there were several ladies sleeping here. The early birds had already merged the small rectangular coffee tables and chairs to form a make-shift bed and were sound asleep, shielded by their Indian soundproof blankets. Those that came in later made do with the floor (which was no cleaner than that of the platforms) and somehow preferred to sleep nearer the toilet than the door. Karen and I tried to make ourselves as comfortable as we could on the plastic chairs and battled the next 6 hours with a fruit cake, coffee, a magazine and our earplugs. The earplugs played the pivotal role against the amplifier in the room that blasted train arrivals and departures 7 times consecutively in both Hindi and English. Of course, there had to be an emancipated baby in the room who was crying and vomiting at one stage. Still, the room did shut out the wind and was not packed with homies. You had to have a ticket to be here and an old lady actually comes around checking.

These sleepers win my admiration. They have no qualms about putting their noses 3 inches off a floor so filthy I would feel queasy walking barefoot on.

Whatever sleep we got in that 6 crawling hours wasn’t much but it sure beat being mugged on the streets in Patna, a city that we already had a bad impression of even before we arrived.

At 6, the street outside gradually came to life and we felt safe enough to leave the railway prison to finally face Patna.

Patna is in bad shape. Where most cities offer a brief respite from the air pollution in the wee hours, there is none of that here even though traffic is light. Some roads remain unpaved and there are no trees. The search for a place to stay was a challenge and we were glad we waited at the station. Most guesthouses we went to were somehow ‘full’ and those which had rooms were either priced too high or too dingy to command that price. Often, service was really bad. Perhaps it was too early. After about an hour of searching, we settled on Hotel Mayur which had big rooms and a much needed hot shower. We later realised that in Patna, hotels and guesthouses had to have a certain permit to accommodate foreign tourists. And those which didn’t have it simply told you they were full. For the most lawless state in India, the hoteliers take this very seriously and the staff at Mayur’s even had to photocopy our passports and visas. Along the way, we saw two luminous blue dogs. Someone must have splashed them with blue dye…at this point, it was really hard to like Patna.

Breakfast changed our attitude a little. For 10 rupees, we got a plate of puri which is like a small hollow deep-fried prata, aloo curry and a sugar-soaked dessert. Apart from the desert, the rest was re-fillable. So we ate our hearts out and since we both ate from the same oily metal plate, we were charged only 10 rupees. That didn’t make much business sense but no one made any fuss either. Beside this roadside eatery was a Hanuman shrine. People would stop, put their hands together at their forehead and pray for a few seconds before continuing their journey. So spiritual, can’t be all that bad.

After some unconscious recuperation, we were opposite our hotel lunching on fresh mutton briyani. Patna seemed to get better as our stomachs got happier. Still walking in wide-awake Patna straight after Sikkim was hazardous. Our lungs would not adapt fast enough so we decided to pamper ourselves with a 200 rupee autorickshaw (tuk tuk equivalent) tour of Patna which took us along Ashok Raj Path towards Har Mandir Takht, one of the four holiest Sikh shrines in India where Guru Gobind Singh, the last of 10 Sikh Gurus was born in 1660.

Now Patna was becoming more interesting. On Ashok Raj Path, we found ourselves squashed between two long rows of little shops. Many of them were selling packets of colours and large plastic syringes. I gathered that a festival where people spray innocent animals with gaudy colours must be around the corner and we had just seen the first two victims. Our rickshaw overtook a horse-cart. The cart was fine but the horse had red legs. Perhaps we’ll see a green tiger at the next junction. Well, as fate would have it, we didn’t see any tigers on Ashok Raj Path and had to make do with two elephants and four camels. It rattles you just when you now used to cows and goats suddenly see four humongous legs and a big hairy belly go past your tiny autorickshaw. Because we were so close, we had to stoop to catch a full view of it. Our maniacal driver also played a huge role in making the ride exciting. This bespectacled guy looked like your average Joe but strived to overtake every vehicle in front of him. It was quite hairy especially when Ashok Raj Path is really more path than road.

Har Mandir Takht like all religious buildings manage to shut the street chaos out and replace the din with music and chanting from 4 ladies. Everyone here has to have their head covered, which is no problem for the Sikh men. I used my hat and Karen was given a big pink handkerchief to put on her head. One attendant in his Punjab-pyjamas, stood by the picture of the Guru just to fan away the flies. We went round the back and were offered a sweet paste by another Sikh. The shrine helpers all wear a black sling across their body to which a small silver dagger is attached. Saturday was, in the words of one helper, ‘Ladies Night’ so the ladies are given the chance to run the show.

In its smaller branch nearby, a friendly and very old man in Kalighat-style hijacked us and took us (and two other local tourists) for a tour around the shrine. He seemed genuine and took us to the more significant parts of the temple but for 15 minutes or so, we didn’t really know what he was talking about. It was a combination of poor English, accent, slurred speech and too many missing teeth. The funny thing was the two locals complimented him on his good explanation at the end of the little tour. Here another shrine helper was enthralled by the photos in our guidebook. He probably hasn’t been to much of India. They offer us some white candy which looked like popcorn the size of a big booger and ask us to stay for tea but we still had the Golghar and the Ghandi Museum to go.

A major traffic jam changed our plans and it was too dark before we even got anywhere near the rest of the attractions. A Patna jam squeezes all the precious breathable air out and replaces it with fumes and close-range honking. Trying to make the best of things, we whipped out our cameras and start snapping and videoing the chaos. Even in Patna, two guys on a scooter couldn’t resist coming up alongside our rickshaw and posing for a photo in the middle of a jam.

Patna also satisfied our craving for chicken whose sale was banned all the time when we were in Sikkim due to the H5N1 scare. We couldn’t even find eggs in Sikkim. The chicken chowmen(fried noodle) and tikka kebab at Mayfair Restaurant officially ended all regrets of coming to Patna but one day was all that we could absorb. The next morning, we climbed the Golghar, a 1786 British granary and saw that Patna was much bigger than we thought. The Ghandi Museum had lots of photos of the Legend but could do with some English text. The caretaker here showed that there was at least someone in Patna who knows something about good service.
Here’s something from the Museum,

When asked what attribute he most admired in human nature Mahatma Ghandi replied, simply and immediately, ‘Courage.’

‘Non-violence’, he says, ‘is not ever to be used as the shield of the coward. It is the weapon of the brave.’

Lord Richard Attenbourough

The Train to Gaya (5th Mar)

We should have realised that something was coming when the train ticket to Gaya (where we were to connect to Bodhgaya) had no seat number and cost only 18 rupees for the 3.5 hours it needed to cover 104 kilometres.

After a leisurely lunch over a new book*, we casually made our way to platform 9 where the train was already waiting. After the walking past the first three carriages, it was evident that we were not going to get a seat. Where was our Singapore kiasuism when we needed it? These folks were probably here an hour ago.

*I am reading ‘Brick Lane’ by Monica Ali, highly recommended, paid 273 rupees for it at Patna train station, couldn’t stand being bookless anymore after Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

By some miracle, I managed to find Karen a seat next to an old man who looked like Ghandi while I stood for about 1.5 hours before a major stop emptied some of the passengers. It was fascinating to note that people who needed for some reason or another (which come to think of it is a totally meaningless English phrase) to leave their seat reserved them by placing a handkerchief on them and this actually works! The guy who gets a short rest would immediately vacate the seat when the rightful owner returns. I wonder what will happen on a train in China.

A guy I met on the train told me that the majority of the passengers did not have a ticket. Incidentally, both of us had one and we both ended up standing for a long time. Karen bought a packet of mango juice for 12 rupees which drew blatant, envious and thirsty stares. We were on a local slow-train and no one would fork out that kind of money for a drink where 2 rupees could get you a fat packet of nuts. It was probably the most uncomfortable drink for Karen.

Conversations with locals will always start with ‘Where’s your country?’ to which I am tempted to say, between Malaysia and Indonesia. Then it will steer to ‘What are you doing there?’ i.e. ‘What’s your job back home?’ so you shouldn’t say ‘I am living there.’ Then comes the compulsory question, ‘What you earning?’ You can’t just say ‘money’. So after so much practice, I rattle off ‘100,000 rupees a month’ as though it was the smallest sum on Earth and listen out for the sharp intake of breath. This ended up as a mouthful of air for the guy I met on the train. He is a car salesman and he earns 7000 rupees a month. Recently he bought a computer for his family for 20,000 rupees. The good folks here are as open about their salary as Singaporeans are closed about it. That in itself is refreshing. Another primary teacher I was talking to introduced himself as follows:

‘I am teacher too, with MASTERS in Psychology and BACHELORS in Education.’

Wah Piang eh…I onli Orr leverr niah @#$% arh neh hao lian!

Extra degrees, masters, Phds are the rave too and also an obvious source of self-esteem. I think standards are very polarised, I have met some undergraduates who really struggle with English and don’t know what a digital camera and an email account is.

After these conversational pit-stops have been made, I find talking to the locals very enjoyable and introspective into the complex cultures they have here. Indians love to talk and actually so do I.

At the station, an autorickshaw driver comes up to us and offer to take us to Bodhgaya for 100 rupees which is a fair rate according to the LP. ‘100 rupees, just you two, no other passengers.’ A shared autorickshaw would only cost 8 rupees per head but there would eventually be a pile of humans on three small wheels after a very long wait. After 3.5 hours, a long wait wasn’t really on our minds.

As promised, the autorickshaw got moving immediately and we were the only two passengers…at the back. Just when we got going, 2 jokers hopped on beside the driver in front.

‘I thought you said that there were only 2 of us??’

‘Yea, they friends’

‘We should pay 50 rupees if they are going to Bodhgaya.

He slows down and one of his ‘friends’ get off.

‘How about this guy?’

‘Oh this one driver.’

‘How come one car need two drivers? I am getting off!’

The ‘driver’ disembarks immediately with a sheepish grin and Bodhgaya here we come without the rip-off. I guess these are the things that make India what we want to experience it to be.


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