‘Golden Chariot?’ I said louder, thinking he was deaf. The station-master sighed and pointed to the waiting room just behind me. ‘Sit’ said the hand. I did as I was told. Eight thousand other passengers peered in at me through the glass, watching me sitting all alone in my foreigner’s prison. I felt faintly stupid and, of course, I was.
Dogster had done it again. I knew I was in the right place; it was the right date – but very clearly, not the right time; not by a long shot. The train wasn’t scheduled to board till nine p.m., in five hours. For once in his long and eventful life, Dogster was early.
As I couldn’t think of anybody to blame but myself, recriminations didn’t last very long. I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity for not having double checked, sighed a couple of times and that was that. I had a choice right in front of me; sink into a sulk and hide – or laugh. I chose the latter.
There’s never a boring moment in an Indian train station and this one in suburban Bangalore was no exception; a vast kajangle of sights and sounds, a flood of humanity waiting, eating, talking, watching. I wandered off into it all, down the platform to my left until it ran out and then back again. Then down the platform to my right – then back again. Then I did it all again. I took it slow. I had time.
Dog watched the other passengers and they watched him, delighted to have a tourist attraction in their midst. Many photos were taken, many smiles exchanged, a whole international language of winks and glances invented on the spot; this foreign Uncle was the object of considerable fascination and ribald humor – they, in turn, provided him with a passing parade of continuous entertainment. It was a fair bargain, nobody had anything better to do so both sides entered into it with glee. The Golden Chariot was conspicuous by its absence. Dogster was conspicuous by his presence.
Little by little, signs that the train would one day arrive appeared. Men dangled from the roof, smart-looking P.R. people descended with clip-boards, made notes, then left. I felt slightly reassured. A vast banner was laid down along the platform, slowly attached to a frame, laboriously hung upside down, taken down, taken off the frame, reattached and re-hung the right way up.
The sign read: MANY WORLDS ONE VOYAGE. How right they were, I thought, and it hadn’t even begun. A line of men in floppy white trousers, yellow shirts and purple turbans wandered along the platform and sat in a perfect line along one wall, just waiting for me to take their picture, a troupe of young dancing girls in orange pants, bright green blouses and a lot of jewellery headed for another waiting room, giggling like crazy, excited. I took their picture, too. A whole feast of theatrical oddity was assembling for the show. Polystyrene statues appeared and were distributed around a flight of steps. Cardboard disks on sticks were arranged in a line, looking just like gold lollypops. Somehow I thought that this was all for me. I was just a little early for the party. No matter. All this was watched with increasing interest by the passing parade. After a while I ceased to be their main object of interest – which, I confess, was rather a relief. In another life I have observed celebrity. If you want to know what public life is like for a soapie star, for a singer of minor renown, just be foreign in an Indian railway station for an hour. It gets old very quickly.
Trains came. Trains left. Crowds of people, almost all young men, lined up in a disciplined fashion along the edge of the platform – disciplined, that is, till their train arrived – then the mayhem began. On cue men in strange slouch hats and khaki uniforms appeared armed with long truncheons and beat the mob into submission. Whack! went the truncheon. Another young man was walloped into compliance. Whack! A group scattered, laughing like drains. Whack! A dozen children fled for cover. Whack! Whack! Whack! I thought they were the staff from the Golden Chariot. I wondered just what was in store for me.
A bus full of journalists had been wined and dined somewhere else entirely; they were missing without trace. There seemed to be nobody particularly in charge. The pre-show entertainment was lining up fine but someone had forgotten to tell the usherette the show was starting.
One by one, other lost passengers arrived and were sent to the waiting room. None of us had the faintest idea what was going on – none of us was overly fussed, though, I have to say, it was all rather exciting. The sun went down, the performers emerged to find garlands placed in a pile ready for distribution, flower petals scattered on the floor. Little by little, more passengers arrived; quite a few jolly policemen gathered then, in a posse, a gaggle of photographers and T.V. crews turned up. A ceremonial flower arrangement with oil lamps appeared on the platform and was lit with a prayer. Men with clip-boards hurtled about, arranging the performers in a mini-Busby Berkeley around the stairs. Throughout all this trains arrived on the same platform, passengers were bludgeoned, trains departed, their desperate cargo hanging out the windows, watching events. Dogster stood in the middle of it all, chuckling at his good-fortune.
At nine thirty television lights sprang into life. The bus of freebee journalists finally drew up outside the station, a riotous sozzle of drunks poured out, important men in expensive suits gathered in clumps at the foot of the stairs, dancing girls danced, men in purple turbans produced drums from their pants and let rip – and at last, long last, the Golden Chariot pulled in to the station. It was Showtime.
Eager hands clasped at my shoulders, smiling faces called me over. I was ushered from the platform, taken outside the station and turned round and shoved up the steps as if I had just arrived. I was to be the very first official passenger on The Golden Chariot.
In full glare of T.V. cameras, lights, many photographers and the assembled throng, I stepped into my spotlight. No policemen were needed to bludgeon me: Mr. Dogster has no problems with minor fame, no hesitation in featuring on the National News – as long as it’s not in handcuffs. Drums pounded, pretty girls danced and smiled enthusiastically, I smiled inanely back. Waving gaily, with a look of intense enthusiasm on my face, I am recorded for posterity walking up a flight of stairs as if on my way direct to heaven; the honorary tourist – garlanded en route, sung to, embraced, given assorted blessings, a bunch of unwieldy flowers and a large pink tika on my forehead – then spat out at the other end with everything but my luggage and any indication of what to do next. No matter. There was a train in front of me – clearly all I had to do was get on it.
I relaxed, took many photographs and watched as the rest of the passengers went through their baptism of fire. One British lady wasn’t so lucky, poor thing. She was so excited she fell flat on her face coming up the steps, her demise captured live on Indian T.V. – but there was such an air of festivity, such an air of occasion, that she was picked up, dusted off, her face glowing pinker than the tika planted lopsided on her forehead and carried, laughing to the train.
Strangely, the rest of the evening is all a bit of a blur. Everybody headed for the bar, the journalists to continue their vast free booze-up, the photographers to take many pictures of the passengers, the heavies to congratulate themselves and the British tourists to pour gin down their throats. Dinner was served, new friends were met, conversations began – conversations that seemed to continue, unabated, for the next seven days. Everybody got along famously. I remember retiring to my bed, falling on to my deep mattress with a sigh – confused, over-excited and happy. The bed was rocking but not because of the wine. With a little spurt of excitement I realized we had already begun our travels, the train was already moving, an event I seem to have missed in all the excitement, heading for the next place – wherever that was.
I knew I was on a train and that the train left from Bangalore – but, in my enthusiasm, had forgotten to look on a map. Frankly, I had no idea where I was. Bangalore, as I later discovered, was in a state called Karnataka. This train was to visit every wonderful thing in that state – many amazing places – not one of which, to my shame, I’d ever heard of.
It was a perfect way, I reassured myself, to start my travels in India: a muddle-headed wombat, confused and not a little drunk. I would let the itinerary unfold without preconception or plan, I thought. As I’d done no research at all, that seemed like a reasonable plan. I was an alchemist at that moment; I could convert idiocy into wisdom, make a virtue of stupidity, change the muddy mongrel waters into vintage Dogster wine. Full of the romance of travel, I passed out with the bedroom lights still blazing, the curtains wide open, my clothes strewn wild; a bumbling jet-lagged sod who barely made it into bed.
In the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, the train lurched to a pit-stop at a station. I heard distant tapping, woke up and looked out. There, standing curiously in front of my window, a small crowd stared intently into my room. I lay sprawled in a huge double bed, facing a glowing flat screen television, two vases of flowers, a bottle of wine, assorted presents scattered round, a robe, wi-fi, mirrors galore… what seemed at first sight like a really fantastic room was, under the glare of twenty or so pairs of hungry eyes, looking vulgar, too cruel a demonstration of who is a rich man and who is not. Even worse, just down the corridor; massage rooms, a computer room, two restaurants, a gym, a bar car – there was probably a swimming pool as well – all shining new. Even the staff seemed spotless. The passengers were the grubbiest things aboard.
Certainly Mr. Dogster, poking his confused face over the lush gold bedspread didn’t look like a Maharaja. I looked like the half-drunk, half-asleep mangy stick-insect I am. But my vanity was the least of the issues going on here. Manky, or perfectly groomed, I was still a rich man lying in a big fat comfortable bed just inches away from where they had been sleeping on the concrete floor of the god-forsaken station we all found ourselves at. So they stared at me and I stared back. I was in no state to embark on a little bit of midnight puppetry to keep my audience amused. My job was just to suck it right up, right here, right now – because this was exactly what I had bought into, this gulf of rich and poor. Better get used to this Dog, I said to myself, there’s more of this coming up. I was just trying to find an attitude that would make me feel a little bit less of a prat.
A lurch and the train moved on – my new friends all waved goodbye with not one skerrick of envy on their faces. I sat up, closed the curtains, turned off the lights and returned to the coma from whence I came. I didn’t think at all about what had just happened. Conclusions were quite beyond me.