My propensity towards schizophrenia is positively correlated to how much time I spend waiting on platforms at Indian railway stations. Stay 20 minutes and you’ll be able to cover just about every corner of the human condition. I say ‘every corner’ to be diplomatic because the vast majority at the station are firmly rooted in the corner that’s cramped, dingy, and in desperate need of better lighting. I’m sure many of you recognize that I’m channeling clichés from the plethora of similarly themed travel blogs, but it doesn’t take away from its accuracy. The things is, India’s…um… stately rail system has a way of making sure you learn some of the valuable lessons it has to offer. One way is by making sure their trains are never predictable and hardly ever on time. My angst-y, puritanical sense of timeliness always puts me at the station well before I should be, giving me enough time to be fully thrown in to the existential cyclone whirling down platform. I think what I get from these moments is mostly a feeling of privilege, followed quickly by guilt. The things I mostly worry about, eating healthy, applying sunscreen, finding work that fits my lifestyle, cower in terror at the presence of the elephantine struggles faced by almost everyone else there on the platform.
So a train station is the setting for the following story that took place during Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering of people (80 million!), that happens on the banks of the Ganges.
You will have a pilgrimage experience travelling to Kumbh. It’s guaranteed, I think. Fortunately, it’ll be along with 10 million of your new closest friends who also chose to go where you’re going and at the exact same time, so all you have to do now is throw away your idea of personal space and hygiene and go with the flow (like you have a choice).
Ashutosh and I arrived at the Allahabad train station in the inconvenient hours of the early morning. As always, our train was a few hours late so our time waiting for our Calcutta friends was mercifully shortened. After failing to find a cup of chai for half an hour, we hunkered down in a corner of the station to await our friends’ arrival. You know a railway station has been taxed past its functioning capacity when they run out of chai. Soon the flood of people began spilling over into our encampment and we were forced outside to more a fitting locale, a sandbag bunker that had been made by the local military which was sitting underneath the foyer at the entrance to the station.
At some point while we waited, a cycle rickshaw whose passengers were two elderly women pulled up to the curb of the station. Even with a cursory glance you could tell that one of the women was not well. She was awake put almost unresponsive, lying across the Rickshaw with her head resting in her companions lap. The driver and the woman’s travelling companion were unsuccessful in getting her out of the rickshaw, so the driver eventually wandered off to find a wheel chair.
Once the driver left, pretty much on cue, the sky turned black and the temperature dropped signaling the onset of what would be a prodigious thunderstorm that lasted the entire weekend. Without the rickshaw driver in sight we decided to go try to help the women to the curb and out of the rain. Ashutosh spoke briefly to the companion, who went over to attempt to wake her friend. She tried a few times and then looked up to speak to Ashutosh, a slight frown forming on her face as she did. Ashutosh looked to me and “She’s thinks she’s dead.” The companion put her hand on the woman’s neck to check for a pulse, only confirming her suspicions by finding none. A Sadhu sauntered over and did the same, after a moment matter of factly stating that she was dead then casually wandering off again. Shortly after the driver reappeared and with his help they moved the body out of the rickshaw and on to the floor of the station. And that was that. No ambulance, no doctor, no thought towards an alternative reality. Looking back, it was the relative tranquility of everyone involved that most shocked me, especially in the stark contrast to the sea of chaos unfolding around us.
I returned to my own reality a moment after when we received a call from our Calcutta friends announcing their arrival. So just as frenetically and disjointedly as it started so it ended, and we piled into a taxi and drove off bouncing down the streets of rainy Allahabad.
I’ll be the first to admit that my scope of understanding here is limited. I don’t know how sick this woman was before arriving to the station, whether her last wish was to come to Kumbh, whether there was in fact someone to care for her besides her companion on the Rickshaw. I know that these gatherings attract all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, so maybe I’m off the mark. Moments like these are experienced forwards but happen so quickly you can only begin to speculate and unpack looking backwards.
I’ve replayed the events of that morning a few times in my head. It’s not the first time I’ve been around death, but it is most definitely the first time I’ve seen it handled with such matter-of-fact, untroubled calmness. I normally try not to give my own commentary too much in these circumstances because I think it shifts the focus away from what’s important, i.e. the person whose life has ultimately been affected, and it can appear self-serving. I’ve failed here so I hope you’ll forgive me.
Part of me was admittedly angry after I witnessed this scene unfold. I was left to imagine the circumstances in which this woman came to Kumbh and the conditions she endured for her dip in the Ganges. But it’s very inspiring what many will sacrifice in the name of an idea. And it’s the nature of that hardship and sacrifice that makes the act so special.
I’m starting a new paragraph in the hope that you’ll accept this next statement as far apart from the story I just told as possible. It’s merely an observation looking back in a greater context and not meant to be a critique of this event in particular. Unnecessary suffering isn’t noble, it’s masochistic. I’m not talking on an individual level, because to understand what’s elected and what’s unavoidable requires distance and self-awareness that few people possess (me included). What I’m talking about is on a much larger scale. One of the observations that I’ve developed over the last 8 months is that India often suffers needlessly. As I foreigner, I understand that defining what is and isn’t avoidable is presumptuous, but I’d like to think that I have enough distance that my opinion’s credible. With some forethought and accountability from those in charge, many of the hardship people here face on a daily basis could be ameliorated, if not entirely avoided. Fatalism from an individual standpoint is understandable, a remedy to cope with an unfortunate hand of cards. But it’s an ugly and hollow gesture when used by those with the power to enact meaningful change. Some say that India develops in spite of itself, a notion perpetuated by a lack of accountability from elected officials and a popular acceptance of their passive resignation. Fortunately things are changing, but these sentiments still manifest themselves in the many tragedies unfolding here daily. Fatalism is part of what can make India such a beautiful place to be, but in greater context and circumstance from which it arises can invoke one of its more frustrating paradoxes.