…coming back the second time, after the petulant hate of the first brief trip had somehow turned to retrospective love, and dust and chaos in Delhi airport – no sanitised airlock here – and knowing categorically I had arrived. And the steaming heat of the morning, and seeing a monkey by the side of the road. And going into the hills a few days later, and the bus winding up and up towards Shimla, and the old man with shaking hands in the photography shop on the mall who took my photo for the inner line permit. Waking in Rekong Peo after coming in on a bad road in the black night and stumbling backwards when I opened my door and saw Kinnaur Kailash looming over the valley for the first time. And the three saddhus with thin arms and narrow eyes, squatting by the road while they were clearing the landslide. The blue of the river and the high, clear light moving north into Spitti, and shivering under a thin blanket at Dhankar Ghompa in the bitter night, then riding into Kaza on the roof of a truck in the long light of the next evening, and the blue of the smooth road and the gold of the bending poplars, and momos for dinner. And the flock of ibex flooding uphill as the bus shuddered over the pass in the stinging cold.
The long-tailed langar monkeys on the roof of the bungalow in Dalhousie, and sweating up through the pines on the ridge behind Brahmour and seeing a deer, standing in a clearing, staring at me, twitching and snorting for a moment before it bolted, and the storm across the valley in long grey smudges.
The taste of masala chai, and a pile of hot paranthas, and the crisp flatbread with yellow dhal and chopped red onion and lime juice on a scrap of old newspaper from the stall where the rickshaw-wallahs had breakfast in Jaisalmir when the sun wasn’t up yet and the walls were black. And having got through the second bottle of rum in Bikaner, brewed specially for the army, and the room moving in a funny way, and Man Singh Rathore swaying in his chair with the bottle in his hand and saying “Mister Tim, is more required? More can be procured…” and Mr Krishna sitting on the floor giggling after he had been so quiet and reserved an hour before.
The flocks of pigeons opening around the three domes of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, clattering and swelling and settling like a dropped handkerchief onto the white flagstones, and the City of Alleyways and wandering for hours trying to find my way back out to the hot noise of Chadni Chowk, and knowing that if I spent a year in the city I would never find these same alleyways again. And the light on the Golden Temple, and the little Shiva shrine, with a tank of clear water and a tangle of red flags, high in the hills, in the tall pines, with no one around. And the way every town sounded like a war for a week before Diwali.
And going south out of Rajasthan over brown fields ringed in with sagging cacti, and the men with long moustaches and red and gold ear-studs and the women with long, gypsy faces and red dresses and white bangles, and the light cutting the shadows of the tilled earth. And Ahmedabad in Ramadan, and the stalls with dates, steaming in the night, and the lamplight, and omelette and bread from a stall near the mosque. And the blind man with the scarred face and the accordion, who came onto the bus, somewhere out in the hot, flat of Gujarat and sang with a voice so pure that I almost cried, and smelling the sea for the first time in months as we crossed the bridge to Dieu, and the light that you only ever find by the sea, and the flaking walls of the white buildings, and the people in black suits and dresses going to Mass on Sunday.
And south and south, and the rickshaw driver with the twisted leg who read Sartre and Cammus, and who shook my hand so warmly when I gave him a copy of The Old Man and the Sea. And the grey swells and the sandy wind running in at Kanyakumari. And the rain in Chennai, on Christmas day, heavier than I imagined possible, thundering down, steaming from the roofs, and standing in the doorway of my grubby room for an hour, watching it.
And shivering in the cold in Calcutta at six in the morning and white mist over the Hoogly, and the dew on the Maidan.
The trains, rolling with a long gait over the country, and the shadows of the still, furred fans circling on the grimy roof, and the glimpses of stretches of white water, and rain-shined platforms and dripping slums. And the vendors coming along the corridor, and hot puri-sabzi on the platform at Allahabad, and the little bow-legged egg-wallah – “aaaaaawwwww-ondhuuuuuuuuu, boil-ondhuuuuuuuuuuuuuu” – squatting and shelling an egg with a spoon, slicing it in four and sprinkling it with salt and cumin, while he balanced on his toes to the roll of the train, and how good it tasted. And the warm-faced village woman on the Bengal country train, going to the Bangladesh border who thought I was Kashmiri and laughed and laughed and laughed when I told her I was British, and gave me an orange and was still laughing when she got down at the next halt.
And the cold in Sikkim in January, and one salmon-pink glimpse of the high peaks in the dawn, and the golden grass on the road to Shillong, and the men butchering a pig in the winter sunlight in a field by the road.
And the worst rooms I have ever stayed in, and the best, and the worst food I have ever eaten, and the best. And the pleasure of buying a stack of newspapers on a day when I was going nowhere, and reading every one of them on the crooked balcony. And looking down from the bitter cold of Mussoorie when I had only two days left in the country, and feeling that beyond the damp, cold slopes, beyond the long, dark stretch of the Doon Valley, looking drowned in the grey-pearl light of the sunset, that I could see all of India, and every road I had taken, and feeling that I had lost something somewhere on the way, but found something rather more.
And Delhi on my last day, and feeling the screaming heat of summer already creeping up, and one last walk in the locked heart of the old Mughal city, and one last journey south by rickshaw, across the great runway of Rajpath and the India Gate honey-coloured in the dusk, and hurrying through the dark tunnelled alleys to the white courtyard of Nizzamuddin’s Dargah. And then back to Paharganj, and going up onto the rough roof and hearing the insects singing in the night and seeing the ghosted lines of the big towerblocks in the darkness to the south, and the smooth outline of the old mosque down the street, and the smell of the cooking, and the fumes, and the coloured outline of Main Bazaar looking like a snake in water below. And with a flight at six in the morning the next day the sudden sense of almost overwhelming panic, and an urge that was hard to resist to thrust everything breathlessly back into my bag, leave the guesthouse, scurry back along the street, past the touts and the backpackers, through the chaos of stalls at the end of the bazaar, across the street through the mayhem of cars and rickshaws and into the echoing caverns of the station, onto the flat dust of a platform, any platform, and into a train, any train, to anywhere…
Tim Hannigan is a truly dedicated traveler as well as a semi-professional writer and photographer. Read more Tim's stories on his blog.