Indian Travel Diary
Chapter 3: Rampurhat/Tarapith

January 22nd, Bolpur/Tarapith

I get up at 7 a.m. After breakfast I get a rickshaw to the railway station. While waiting for the Ganadevata Express to Rampurhat I want to buy some fruit juice. There's a stall on the railway platform, open, well-stocked, but no-one there to sell anything, and no-one comes in the twenty minutes until the train arrives. Typically Indian.

Beggars are working the waiting passengers. An old man, 80 years old he says, starts talking to me. He's half-mad. He advises me, if I wish to stay in India, to go to Poona. I tell him I intend to.

The train arrives. I have some difficulty finding my carriage, since most don't have numbers. Finally I find it, and there are not many passengers. The train departs. There's a singer, a Baul? Sounds like it. Nice to listen to. He gets five rupees from me.

Mosaic at Rampurhat railway station
(Click on images to enlarge.)
The Ganadevata Express rumbles along, though a more apt name would be the Ganadevata Tortise. After an hour we arrive at Rampurhat railway station, where there is an interesting mosaic illustrating religious themes associated with Tarapith.

I get off the train knowing only that Tarapith is 8 km. away. I walk out of the station, crying "Bus, Tarapith! Bus, Tarapith!" A rickshaw wallah comes up and it seems he agrees to take me to the bus station for ten rupees. We go through town. We continue on out of town, pass a sign saying "Rampurhat city limits". I wonder about the bus station. Finally we pass a sign which says, "Tarapith 5 km." and we come to an intersection, where there are some trucks and buses. But the rickshaw wallah clearly intends to continue on down the road to Tarapith. I stop him. Don't want to go another 5 km. in a rickshaw, especially not knowing how much he'll want for this. I talk to some locals and they tell me I can get a bus from here to Tarapith, so I pay the rickshaw wallah twenty rupees and wait for a bus. A tuk-tuk comes along, with some passengers, on the way to Tarapith. There's a free seat — ten rupees. I squeeze in with my large rucksack, my shoulder bag and my laptop.

They're doing the road up. The man next to me is from Calcutta, in the silk business. He advises me to stay at the Hotel Kali. The Rough Guide mentions another hotel and "a pleasant dharamshala near the temple."

We arrive at Tarapith. The man hops out at Hotel Kali. I decide to continue on to look at the dharamshala. As the tuk-tuk pulls out the man says, "You pay him ten rupees." The tuk-tuk wallah continues another 100 yards to the market place and points down a lane leading to the dharamshala. (Since this lane actually leads in the direction opposite that to the temple this was probably not in fact the way to the dharmshala.) I get out and proffer ten rupees (which is the standard fare for a seat in a shared tuk-tuk). He refuses. Seems to want fifteen. But I'm not paying an extra five rupees just for 100 yards. He refuses to accept ten rupees, so I walk off down the lane.

I'm looking for the dharamshala. The tuk-tuk wallah comes up and demands his money. Some locals indicate that he wants fifty rupees, apparently the tuk-tuk fare for an unshared tuk-tuk from Rampurhat to Tarapith. No way. In the end, after I get angry, he accepts ten rupees.

I find the dharamshala, or what I take to be the dharamshala (having asked some locals): a three-storey affair, not at all rustic, and it's completely deserted except for a man cleaning one of the rooms, which look very basic. Obviously not suitable. So nothing for it but to lug the rucksack (it's 20 kg), my laptop and shoulder bag back to the town center and then to the hotels. I ask at two, but they say they have no singles. I finally come back to the Hotel Kali. They have rooms. Initially they ask 550 rupees per night, but we finally agree on 300. The second room they show me is not bad at all, a couple of floors up, with a view, soft mattress, two warm blankets, a decent bathroom with a shower and even hot water! For US$6 it's quite OK.

Looks like there's no internet place in Tarapith. I'm going to have to go back to Rampurhat a couple of days from now to get online.

Got quite a bit of laundry to be done. The hotel manager says: give it in tomorrow morning.

Strangely, slept from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. I go out at sunset. A couple of monkeys are prowling around on the upper storeys of a hotel, looking for something to steal. I walk along the street with all the stalls selling religious images and such. Lots of pictures of Tara, Mahakali, even some of Bamakhepa, the "mad" saint. The fact that he lived here is what put Tarapith on the map. It's dusk. I stand at the door of a small temple with an image of four-armed Mahakali and listen for a while to some men chant bhajans.

As usual in India, lots of dogs around, but very few cats. One dog runs up to me and rubs its head against my leg as I'm walking along. It's really enthusiastic about this. Maybe it likes the feel of the fabric from which my trousers are made.

There are lots of hotels in Tarapith. Quite a few new ones being built. I wander back to the my hotel and past it to a big new hotel, not yet completely built. Looks nice but expensive. The manager shows me a couple of rooms, quite nice, and offers me their standard single for only 250 rupees. A good deal. Maybe I'll move after two nights here.

Have dinner at the restaurant in another hotel (the one at my hotel hardly deserves to be called a restaurant — it's just a dingy room with a few old tables and a hole in the wall connecting to the kitchen). Chicken curry, rice and roti (chapati), quite good. I chat with the manager during dinner. I remark that I see no other Westerners here, and ask him when was the last time he saw a European in Tarapith. A year ago, he says. Clearly the new hotels going up are not meant for Western tourists, nor for poor pilgrims. Maybe more well-to-do Indians are visiting holy places, perhaps a symptom of the current emphasis in India on Hindutva — "Hindu-ness".

Sleep, wake at 2 a.m., sleep again but poorly. Irrational dreams in which I'm required to calculate or do some kind of computation. At one point the present Pope, John-Paul II, has made a public statement that he was recently abducted and raped. Total insanity.

January 23rd, Tarapith

I wake at 8:30 a.m., feeling poorly. At 9:30 I go down to give my laundry in. The hotel manager says: sorry, laundry man was here early this morning, must wait until tomorrow. I need this laundry done soon, so I say, well, maybe I can take it myself. He says, OK, the hotel boy will show you. So we set off. I notice that there are not just two monkeys at the hotel a few doors up, but a whole family of them living in a tree. We walk through the town square, down the street where I was last night, past the main temple, and on and on. Finally I decide this is too far, is not a good idea, so I give the boy ten rupees and turn back to the hotel.

On arrival I'm not feeling amused. I haven't had any breakfast, I've just trudged a mile with my dirty laundry to no avail, and the hotel doesn't even have a decent restaurant where I can get breakfast, so I decide to leave and move to the hotel I looked at last night. I tell the manager I'm leaving. OK, he says. I go to the other hotel and the manager shows me the room I saw last night, and I say I'll move in in half an hour.

Back at the Hotel Kali I start to pack, but decide that this is a lot of trouble and is not a good idea. This room is OK, in some ways better than the other. So I decide to stay. I go downstairs and tell the manager, who agrees to my staying. He is trying to be helpful. He says I can give my laundry in and he'll have the hotel boy take it over, so I can get it back tomorrow.

I go out to inform the manager of the other hotel that, no, after all, I'm not taking the room. On the way I get breakfast from a roadside stall: two small cups of chai (milky tea) and a couple of biscuits for 8 cents. The other hotel manager accepts my decision stoically. Although his hotel is still only half-built, the half that is finished seems to be well patronized by Indian tour groups.

So, after considerable hotel difficulties, I finally am settled for awhile.

I decide today I will visit the main Tara/Mahakali temple. I wear my thongs (a.k.a. flipflops) rather than my boots (which, sad to say, are showing signs of wear after a year; hope they hold up), since I'll be having to leave my footwear at the temple gate.

Main Tara temple
I go out about 2 p.m., and eat a mandarin for lunch (that's a fruit). I head down last night's street (which seems to be the main, and only, shopping street in town). I come to the main temple, pay ten rupees for a cup made from leaves and containing offerings (flower, cake, incense), leave my thongs and enter the temple grounds through the gate. I see the temple, looks like terracotta above and stone below, but maybe all terracotta; the bottom half is painted a deep red. I'm directed to the queue of people, all carrying their offerings, waiting to enter the temple.

After about half an hour I make it to the temple entrance. Inside is a small area with the image of Kali in the form of Tara, silver-faced, with red around the mouth, probably representing blood. It's wreathed with flowers, and what looks like black hair hangs down at the sides. There's a railing around, with three Brahmin priests inside, assisting the worshipers in making their offerings. As a Westerner I'm hastened into the inner inclosure, where the priest indicates I should kneel before the image of Tara, as I do, and I press my forehead to the altar. I stand and the priest does his offering thing, and places red powder on my forehead as usual (sometimes it's yellow), then says, "Money". I know to leave some money. I place a ten-rupee-note on the altar. As I'm leaving the enclosure the priests requests more money, but I'm not inclined to fatten the priests, so I just smile and say, "Already gave". I ask if I can take a photo, but the priests say No. They still urge an offering, they want a hundred rupees, but I decline. Maybe a hundred rupees would have changed their minds about photos, and in any case it would have done no harm.

Wedding couple
Outside I look around and take some photos, including some of a wedding couple. As I leave the temple grounds there's the usual throng of temple gate beggars. I give a few rupees to some women. One young girl, about eight years old, grabs my hand as I'm putting a coin into an old woman's bowl, and tries to wrench the one-rupee coin from my fingers. Her grip is quite tight, and for a while she might get it, but in the end I make her let go, and I place the coin into the hand for which it is meant.

I then wander down the street, and follow some people down a lane toward the river, just to see where they're going. The lane leads to the cremation grounds. There's a small hill about fifty meters away, and a couple of fires burning on top. There are sadhus around, and monkeys. One sadhu is threatening a monkey, who is halfway up a tree, and grimacing back at him.

I start to walk toward the pyres. A man tells me to remove my thongs, which I do. Apparently cremation grounds are like temples in this respect. I get to the hill with the pyres. It's black, presumably the ashes of innumerable past cremations. There are some men standing around on the hill, attending the two fires. They speak to me in Bengali, but they know no English, so our total communication consists in my telling them where I'm from. They are friendly enough. I go to the top of the hill to inspect the pyres. Nothing dignified about these. Just a couple of wood fires with the remains of two mostly burnt corpses, not a particularly pleasant sight, quite grisly actually, and I decide they are not likely to make good photos.

Bamakhepa shrine
I go down the hill and wander toward a bunch of shrines. This is the social center of the cremation ground. It seems I came in the back way inadvertently. There are men selling incense, and some way off there are huts with sadhus sitting in the doors. A man is trying to tell me about the shrines. One is for Mahakali. Another, all in red, is for Bamakhepa, the mad yogi. I look through the grill and see a picture of Bamakhepa on the ceiling.

Jayanta Lal Chatterjee
I wander down among the sadhus' huts. As I'm passing one I see this sadhu sitting in the door preparing some ganja to smoke. We make contact. He speaks some English and he invites me to sit inside. He's an old man, with matted grey hair, wearing an orange dhoti and covered with an old blanket. He prepares a small chillum and smokes it, then offers it to me. I take a few tokes. Makes me cough but it's not strong ganja. I ask him about himself. His name is Jayanta Lal Chatterjee, and he's been at Tarapith for ten years. Sometimes he visits another Satipitha in Assam, Kamakhya; it takes him fifteen days to walk there. I ask him about death. His English is not good enough for detailed discourse. I say, what will happen to you when you die. He indicates that his body will be placed in the Earth (sannyasis are buried, not cremated). Yes, I say, but what about ... and here I make a gesture toward the heart. He indicates, by another gesture, that it will soar into the cosmos. I ask him about his sadhana (practice), but his English is not sufficient to answer, except to indicate that it is the worship of Ma Tara. "All is Tara", he says. I point to the rug, the bamboo of the hut, and ask, "Is this Tara?" Yes, he says, all Tara. This accords with my own view that everything is part of God. It's just a terminological difference. God, Kali, Shiva, all the same. This world, everything in it, is of the nature of God. So we agree, and there's not much more to be said.

At one point he pulls out a small cannister, apparently a throat spray, or perhaps some asthma medicine. Eighty rupees a month, he says. So before I leave I slip him a hundred-rupee-note. Having left and got someway down the street I realize that I forgot to ask for a photo. I must have been stoned. So I go back and he's agreeable so I take a few photos. All in all an interesting afternoon.

On my way back to the town center I buy another mandarin and find a boy selling some sweet, it looks like honeycomb, but not exactly anything I've seen before. He gives me a bit to taste. Very nice. I'm tempted to buy a block, but settle for a small piece for two rupees. Back at the hotel I find that this stuff is just great, really addictive. I'll have to buy a block next time. Unfortunately, as it turns out, I don't see him again. Damn! Missed my chance.

I go to the same restaurant where I ate last night to order dinner. While waiting for dinner to arrive I walk around the town center. There are plenty of food stalls. One is selling fried chicken (not Colonel Saunders style). Looks good, I think I'll eat here tomorrow night, a lot cheaper too.

Dinner is an indifferent and overpriced mutton biryani (a rice dish). But the fried dal and chapati are good.

I discover that more pieces of my teeth have come out. Not the same tooth as yesterday. Seem to be lost fillings. A few weeks before I arrived in India I had a dental checkup but the risk of losing these fillings seems to have escaped the dentist's attention. Also gums are bleeding a bit. Not good. Maybe an Indian dentist is not such a bad idea after all, but I doubt I'll find one I can trust before Chennai (Madras).

January 24th, Tarapith

Take my breakfast in the hotel. It's butter-toast, onion omelette and coffee, not great but edible. Monkeys are chasing each other in the field outside. My laundry is returned, quite well done, and the cost is just 50 rupees (US$1) for two T-shirts and six other small pieces.

The window in my room is open, and a couple of sparrows come and perch on the iron grille, chirping. One of them enters and flies about the room for a bit. Cheeky devil!

I want to go in today to Rampurhat to see if I can find an internet place.

I take a shared taxi into Rampurhat. Get off someplace in the town which I think is near the internet place I saw when I arrived. I ask a local, who advises I take a rickshaw to a certain place, which I do. There's a sign which says "Internet" but the place is closed. But I think I know how to get to the other internet place, so I walk in its direction.

Street scene Rampurhat
I walk on. Rampurhat is your typical small Indian town, dusty streets lined with shops and businesses. Eventually come to the place I'm looking for. Yes, they have two functioning PCs. I manage to connect and am able to pick up some, but not all, of my email. The line is, of course, slow, and is dropped occasionally, requiring reconnection. But after a while, even though the PC is connected to the ISP via the phone line, no websites can be accessed. Seems the domain name server is timing out repeatedly. Nothing to do. I wonder if I'm going to have to return to Calcutta to get anything done on the net.

I get a shared taxi back to Tarapith and go to a place I noticed last night, Eastern Railways Reservations Office. This one is even smaller than the one at Shantiniketan; it's just a one-room hut. As at Shantiniketan, apparently you can only buy second class tickets there, and no reservations can be made, despite what the sign says.

The man at the counter invites me in to his office and explains the trains leaving mornings for Calcutta. There are just two. One leaves from Rampurhat at 7:10 a.m., the other is a local train leaving at 9:30 a.m. for Bolpur where I'd have to catch the 1:00 p.m. train to Calcutta. Neither is an attractive option.

The man, Chandan Roy Chowdhury by name, in his early 40s, turns out to be quite knowledgeable not only about railway timetables but about Hinduism and Buddhism. It seems as a young man he travelled a lot around India. He tells me that Tarapith is actually not a Satipitha, as I'd mistakenly believed. It was an important center for Tara worship but was made famous by the presence of Bamakhepa. He tells me there is a Satipitha called Akalipur-Bhadrapur, about 20 km away, which has an unusual temple in hexagonal form, where there is an image of Bhadra-Kali, a form of Kali, he says, in the style of a Tibetan Buddhist deity, presumably dating from the times when Buddhist and Hindu tantra influenced each other.

I find a man selling posters of Tara and other Hindu deities, five rupees each. I buy one of the silver-faced Tara, take it back to my hotel and put it on the wall of my room.

I go out about 6 p.m. to the local Kali mini-temple and listen to the men singing bhajans. I go to the place cooking chicken — its actually more like stewed in herbs rather than fried — and I get a piece with some dal and roti. It's delicious. It all costs 37 rupees (80 cents).

I browse through the stalls, lit up in the dark, and find a man selling bracelets. One, made of copper and other metals, looks like good workmanship, has (in Sanskrit letters) Om Namah Shivaya — homage to Shiva. I ask how much. Fifteen rupees (30 cents). A steal. I buy it.

Butcher shop, Tarapith
I come to the place selling goats and chickens (actually it's the local butcher shop). There are several goats tethered out front. They like to eat the peel from my mandarins, so I usually give it to them when I buy one. When someone wants some goat meat they take a goat over to the far corner of the shop and slaughter it on the spot, in full view of the goats tethered at the front. Apparently they've recently killed one, since there's plenty of blood on the ground. I ask the man, "Do the goats know they're going to be killed?" but his English is not good enough to understand. Since they can presumably see their companions being slaughtered, one would think they'd know. But they show no sign of anxiety at their impending deaths. They're just being goats in the usual goat way. Maybe a goat just doesn't have a concept of death, at least, not its own death.

January 25th, Tarapith

I get a "taxi" into Rampurhat to the internet place. It's hopeless. Get nothing done.

I go to the railway station to see the man I met yesterday, Chandan, to invite him to lunch when the reservation counter closes at 2 p.m. He invites me into the office, but after the reservation window closes he still has an hour's work to do. I have decided not to return to Calcutta immediately but rather to go on to Guwahati, in Assam, where there is one of the most important tantric temples in India, Kamakhya. Chandan kindly fires up the archaic computer reservation system and we find that there is a suitable overnight train leaving from Rampurhat next Tuesday, a 20-hour journey to Guwahati.

I ask him to help me find an internet place that works. Around 4 p.m. he takes me to a place where he is taking a computer course. They agree to let me use one of their PCs, but they can't connect to their ISP.

We go on to Chandan's home, where he introduces me to his mother, wife, son and nephew, and gives me tea and biscuits. He shows me the family altar, which has a half-dozen pictures of Shiva, Kali, Tara, etc. He also shows me a picture of the image of Bhadra-Kali at Akalipur-Bhadrapur, which he told me about yesterday. She is black, two-armed, holding flowers in each hand, sitting cross-legged on a large snake, and with snakes around her neck and her waist. As in all Kali images her tongue sticks out. Chandran again says that this image is similar to images of Buddhist tantric deities, and he thinks there is a connection.

I ask why Kali is always shown with her tongue sticking out. He tells me that the Hindu story is that there are asuras (like devils) and devas (like gods), who fight each other. When the asuras have begun to dominate and get out of control Kali enters the scene and seeks to slaughter them. She is siezed by a frenzy of destruction. In order to stop her from destroying the whole world Shiva, her husband, lies down in her path. Kali accidentally steps on Shiva, and, looking down, notices that she has touched her husband with her feet. For a Hindu wife this is a great source of shame, and Kali is shocked (expressed by her poking her tongue out) and thus awakens from her frenzy, and the world is saved from destruction.

Chandan's nephew, who is studying e-commerce, takes me to an internet place, not the same one I was at before (this one is a few PCs at the rear of a grocery store). Fortunately they can connect, it's not too slow, and in an hour I have done all I need to do for now.

It's 7 p.m., and dark, and I need to be getting back to Tarapith, 8 km away. The nephew advises me to go to the railway station and get a seat in a tuk-tuk. I do, but find that all the tuk-tuk drivers are waiting for passengers from the train due to arrive at 7:30, and no-one's leaving until then. So I stand around for half an hour and talk in minimal English with the tuk-tuk drivers, who ask me about myself and about where I come from. Finally the train arrives and we get enough passengers to leave. A tuk-tuk is built for a driver in the front seat and for two or three passengers in the back, but when we set out it has the driver and six passengers. It's a chilly ride in the open tuk-tuk back to Tarapith.

January 26th, Tarapith

Wake late. Take breakfast. Get a jeep into Rampurhat, pay the Indian fare of five rupees.

I meet Chandan at the railway reservation office. He kindly arranges my ticket and reservation for the train to Guwahati on Tuesday. I'm going 1st class, 4-berth sleeper, costs 1260 rupees (US$26). I take some photos of Chandan. We talk for a bit about the U.S. having killed a lot of innocent people in Iraq. I remind him of what he told me yesterday about Kali, the devas and the asuras. I suggest that the leaders of the U.S., who apparently want perpetual war, are asuras. He agrees. At some time Kali will be aroused and will slaughter them all.

I go to the internet place I was at yesterday and spend three hours catching up on the backlog of email.

I find a place selling big glossy posters of Hindu deities and buy eight of them, three rupees (6 cents) each.

I go to the "taxi" stand at the railway station and get one as it's leaving, one person inside. I tell the driver twice "five rupees" for Tarapith and he seems to agree. We depart with only one other passenger. He gets off halfway and pays. The driver's sidekick is trying to find other passengers on the way, but no luck. We arrive at Tarapith and I offer ten rupees for the trip, but, no, they want more. It seems like the same scam that was run on me when I first arrived, agreeing to the fare for one seat then demanding the full price for an unshared "taxi". We go into my hotel where I expect the manager to sort it out. The driver and his sidekick, and other Indians present, are all jabbering away in Bengali. The driver refuses my ten rupees. I get angry and throw them both out of the hotel. The manager then talks to them, and comes to me and says they'll take the ten rupees, which they do, and go off. I'm still pretty pissed off about it though. Yet, on reflection, it could be that it was a genuine misunderstanding, though that's stretching things a bit. More likely the taxi drivers think that if they arrive with one Western (not Indian) passenger (no matter how many passengers they had on the way) they can demand the fare for an unshared "taxi" and expect the bystanders to support their demand.

January 27th, Tarapith

I'm glad I decided not to move to the other hotel. This room is sunny and quite pleasant. Birds can be heard twittering in the mornings.

After breakfast, since I am leaving tomorrow, I pay my hotel bill. It's 2016 rupees for six nights including breakfast, US$7 per night.

I go to the smashana, the cremation ground, buy some incense and make offerings before the shrines of Ma Tara and of Bamakhepa. I sit awhile and watch some sadhus make offerings.

Sleeping sadhu
I go for a walk in the smashana. The sadhus live in sadhu houses, flimsy structures built of bamboo, matting and whatever can be found, with a mat on the floor, an altar and pictures of Hindu deities on the wall, mainly Shiva and Ma Tara. They have no material possessions other than their clothes, a blanket, a chillum (for smoking ganja) and some basic utensils. Most sadhu houses are built for one person, but there are a couple of larger structures. They are arranged haphazardly through the smashana, amidst piles of rubbish and the ashes of burnt-out fires. The worldly desires of the sadhus have also burnt away, and they make no distinction between wealth and poverty, respect and disdain, high class and low class — for them all is Tara, all holy.

I wander over to the black ash-heap where they perform the cremations, but there are none today. I take some photos, talk to some Bengali tourists — whole families in their Sunday best wandering through the cremation ground. I take a photo of a sadhu sitting in the door of his sadhu house, and offer ten rupees at his altar. He says a prayer for me and puts the red mark on my forehead.

I visit Jayanta Lal Chatterjee, whom I met a few days ago here, and we smoke some ganja together. He shows me a new packet of the asthma medicine which he bought with the hundred rupees I gave him. I ask him his age: 71 His English is not good enough for serious conversation, so I say goodbye and slip him another hundred rupees as I leave.

Shiva altar
Continuing my wandering around the smashana I notice something like a sadhu house, but open at the front, perhaps a communal tantric altar. It's got three skulls at the front, painted red, and the main part is a Shiva trident, with a couple more skulls behind. I take a couple of photos and as I'm about to put a few coins in the offering tray a sadhu runs up (from where he'd been playing cards with some other sadhus a little way away) and objects. He wants a hundred rupees, but I give him ten and he puts it in the offering tray then goes off. He soon comes back and takes the ten rupees, perhaps thinking it too much money to be left lying around.

As I leave I give the few rupees I have left to the beggars at the gate, and proceed back down the main shopping street. I'm accosted by a bunch of girl beggars. They're a nuisance, but I'm happy to buy them some food if they'll take it. They will. They want meat. I buy each of the five girls and a couple of old women a sausage each (costs three rupees apiece). I go on, but three more beggar girls run up; apparently they missed out on the sausage. So I buy five more (two more girls, an old man and a sadhu have since joined the begging party) but some of the girls don't want sausage. They don't want fruit either. What they want is potato chips, so I buy a bag at ten rupees for them to share. As I reach the main square three boys come up and start begging, so I buy them (it's now five) a large biscuit each (they really wanted an egg). I can't say I'm overly generous, having paid only about fifty rupees, one dollar, for some snacks for about fifteen people, but they were all pleased to get what they got.

Later I reflect that it wouldn't have hurt to be more generous (to buy the girls a pack of chips each, and to buy the boys boiled eggs rather than biscuits), though I didn't want to set a precedent as a Western tourist who goes around giving generous handouts of food to anyone who asks. Next time I'll do better. It's a learning experience.

Dinner of sauteed chicken, dal and roti, followed by a mandarin. I buy four more glossy posters: Shiva, Parvarti, Ganesh, Ma Tara and Bamakhepa.

Back in my hotel there's a knock on the door. Two men. Smiling. One says, "You have work for us? I go to your country." Apparently they want me to hire them as manservants. Sorry, I say, no work for you.

Later there's another knock on the door. Some Indian. I don't know what he wants, but I push him away gently, and hear no more from him. Maybe word's got around that the remarkable foreigner is staying here and he wanted a look.

January 28th, Tarapith

I pack in preparation for overnight train to Guwahati. The zipper on one of my boots breaks. I should've got new boots before I arrived in India.

Shoeshine boys
I go to see Chandan at the railway station, leave my rucksack in his office, go to the internet place for a couple of hours, then return in time to catch the train at 4:40 p.m. But I'm told it's 90 minutes late. I read a book. At 6 p.m. I'm told it will be here at 7:30 p.m. It seems the train is coming from Madras, and was held up by a railway workers' strike. Chandan and I go for dinner. I tell Chandan about my boot and he takes me to the shoeshine wallahs at the front of the station. Soon the zipper is fixed! Amazing. Ten rupees only.

We wait for the train on the platform. It finally arrives at 8 p.m., over three hours late. Chandan finds my bunk for me. It's an upper bunk in a compartment with four berths. A couple of woman and children occupy the other bunks. The train is crowded and grubby, but not as crowded and grubby as the cheaper compartments. I attach my rucksack to the fold-up table by the window with a chain and padlock and put my laptop and shoulder bag on the upper bunk. I make my bed (it's a sheet, blanket and pillow, provided by the railway), replace my boots with slippers and lie down. Soon I'm asleep, keen to blot out the surrounding reality from consciousness. Later I wake, remove my slippers, place them on a shelf over the bunk (I'll never see them again), and get into the sheet and blanket. The train is pretty bumpy, but I'm able to sleep. About 2:30 a.m. it pulls into New Jaipalguri and one woman and the children leave. I go back to sleep.

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