And so, fifteen years after my first trip to India, I was back again in Delhi.
Eventually I felt brave enough to leave the café and go off to do my tasks. First of all, I had to sort out my train ticket, so I headed off to the Tourist Bureau (The Official One!) at New Delhi Station. But as I headed up the steps towards the office, I was stopped by a friendly chap who told me it was closed. ‘But no bother’ he said. ‘You come with me and I take you to Tourist Office where they sell you ticket’.
Before I realized what I was doing, I turned to follow him. By the time that we were out of the station and threading our way through the taxis and crowds on the concourse I had remembered that this was a common ploy to get people to ‘Tourist Offices’. Nowadays I have no problem with using them – in fact I will often seek them out to buy me tickets, but more of that later. I glanced up at my new best friend, who was a few steps ahead of me, and peeled unobtrusively off and headed back into the station.
I went back up the steps towards the Tourist Bureau. The first thing that struck me was the silence. Downstairs, all was noise and smells, colour and chaos, but up here was a big, gloomy, echoing corridor, empty as far as I could see. After wandering up and down for a while, I found the Bureau which was, naturally enough, open, and fairly crowded. Inside, whilst I awaited my turn at the counter, I chatted to a fellow traveller from England who decided that it was his task to lecture me at length on how to approach getting a ticket out of Indian Railways. Foremost amongst this advice, he said, hectoring me sternly, was keeping your cool amidst all the provocation, bureaucracy and hassle.
Eventually, he was called to the counter. They went through his application form and documents with him, seemingly finding fault with something. He lost his cool with them, and left without a ticket.
I chortled quietly to myself.
When it was my turn, I found the process fairly straightforward, although long-winded. But I left with my ticket to Gaya stashed securely in my wallet.
Why Gaya? Gaya is certainly not a tourist destination, but it is the nearest town of any size to Bodhgaya. When I had decided to come to India, instead of limping around Britain in pain, I had come to the conclusion that instead of just travelling around for three months or so, I should at least spend some time doing something worthwhile.
We all like to think that we’re having an existential crisis at times. Okay, that’s probably not true. But lots of us do. What is an existential crisis, though? Is it simply that we are going through a time in our history when more and more of us question our role, our place in our society? Or could there be more to it than that? It certainly would now seem to be a time when many people in the west have come to doubt whether the values that they are taught are actually of any importance, and indeed whether they really have any value at all.
On the other hand, there are just as many members of that society who feel that the whole subject is just bunkum, and that those who complain about these things are merely whinging, work-shy degenerates. Sod your existential issues, mate, I’ve got a family to feed.
Is it really, then, just so much nonsense? Maybe our situation is such that we can afford to have these crises now; that we now have the opportunity to address them. When life is simply a struggle to keep a roof over one’s head and to put food on the table, then one’s priorities are very different from those with the leisure to ponder ‘life’s imponderables’. In past times, we would have had to just carry on regardless, although there were writers then who recognised and explored them, such as Hermann Hesse and Somerset Maugham. The only other realistic option, other than becoming a vagrant, would have been to completely renounce the world and to join a monastery or become a hermit.
India, though, handles these things rather differently. Hindus have a duty to seek pleasure and success and to accumulate wealth, but also, eventually, to renounce the world and seek moksha; liberation, after the discovery that the other three paths give no lasting satisfaction. This is seen in the persons of the many ascetics who wander the land, or live alone or in ashrams, having given up all worldly possessions.
Bodhgaya is in Bihar, the poorest state in India. It is also the place where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. For this reason, there are many Buddhist temples there, attracting a goodly number of Buddhist pilgrims, and, naturally, not a few tourists, and also a number of charitable projects.
And a few rogues.
I was attracted to the idea of spending time there, both to experience the temples and atmosphere, but also to work for a while on one of the projects. I did some research whilst in the UK, and arranged to help out at a project that comprised a school and orphanage in a village on the outskirts of Bodhgaya.
Smugly pleased with myself for obtaining my ticket to Gaya, I then went to find an Internet cafe and e-mailed everyone, then meandered back to a café for lunch.
Two days later, I was in Bodhgaya.