Night Train to Varanasi
I met him on a train. I was returning from Delhi to Varanasi. Perhaps, in February, 2011. Still in his sleeping bag, on the facing lower berth, he was slowly awaking from sleep. His daughter lay fast asleep on the upper berth. I checked my watch. It was 6.15 am. An hour more to Varanasi. As he woke up, I greeted him: Good Morning!
We soon struck a conversation, and he said it was his second or third visit to Varanasi. He also told me, he usually stays in one of the cheap local hotels near the Ganga ghats. It is convenient to move around from there. He could stay closer to the life in the narrow sreets. He was a writer, he told me, and also ran a literary agency in Australia. Before we detrained, we had become friends. His daughter looked rather aloof and taciturn.
Sean Doyle met me again , on my invitation, in a small get together at a friend’s apartment. After he went back, he kept a regular email correspondence of which I now discover, I have a large volume. In those days, I was busy researching and writing my biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad. He, too, revealed later that he was writing a novel – or rather a narrative of his travels in India in the style of fiction with descriptions of places, including dialogues with characters he met as he went round on his travels through various cities in India. Ultimately he polished it off as a novel - which can best be called ‘un-magical realism’, presenting real-named people in it – one of them being myself, by our chance meeting in that AC-2 Sleeper. That novel is now published and available in India
It is rather queer and quaint to find oneself as a living character in a quasi-fictional travel account which you hold in your hands as a enticing novel. But that also stops you from being a reviewer of the book. In fact, all that I’m entitled to do is to act as an Usher. And I’ll do just that, and start with that very serendipitous moment of epiphany – when we bumped into each other!
I’ve barely stirred when I hear a voice.
Where am I? On a train … I raise my eyeshades. A man of perhaps 60, with glasses, smiling eyes and a kind, round face, is sitting on the berth opposite mine, swaddled in his bedclothes, sipping a steaming chai. A picture of contentment.
‘Good morning,’ I manage. I now know where I am.
‘How did you sleep?’
‘After last night, like a log.’
‘Yes.’ He smiles. ‘I noticed you were quite busy. You did well.’
‘Thank you, and thanks to the kindness of your compatriots.’
The chai wallah appears. I get one then check on Anna: sleeping still. And our packs: present and accounted for.
‘Do you know where we are?’ I ask him.
‘About an hour from Varanasi.’
Excellent. We do the introductions. He is Mangal Murty, a retired Professor of English Literature, living in Varanasi.
‘I studied literature,’ I say.
We chat about the classics for a bit, not my first such conversation in India. I’ve found myself another ‘English’ gentleman. Brothers of empire indeed. I love it.
Murty is also a writer, having recently published the collected works of his father, Shivapujan Sahay, a leading literary figure in Hindi mid-last century. Murty’s something of a specialist biographer, having written a biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad, India’s first president, and one of Jagjivan Ram, an important pre-Independence politician who was of low caste. Ram’s daughter, Meira Kumar, served a term as Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower House of Parliament (national). And in true classics mode, Murty has also produced a study of Poe’s fiction.
‘And what is your line of work?’ he asks.
‘Book publishing. I’m an editor.’
‘Oh, lovely.’ He reaches into his bag. ‘Do you mind if I film you?’
‘Can I film you while I ask you a few questions about book publishing in Australia?’
‘Ah, okay.’ This is a first: the wake-up interview in bed during which I … wake up.
He asks, I answer. It’s all over in two minutes.
‘Thanks so much,’ he says. ‘Very interesting.’
A waiter comes by with some sad-looking chola bathura: chick-pea curry and small puri (deep-fried bread). Think I’ll wait till we get there.
Murty has an idea. He wants to start walking tours of the Old City in Varanasi for Indian and foreign tourists.
‘I like it,’ I say. I’m surprised they’re not already happening.
‘It’s a great oversight that they don’t already exist,’ he says.
‘That’s just what I was thinking.’
‘I have a few friends who want to be involved,’ he continues. ‘Would you like to meet us? We’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on what foreign tourists would want from these tours.’
‘Sure, I’d be happy to.’
‘Delightful. Do you have a phone?’
‘Okay, I’ll give you my number. Today is Sunday. We could meet on Wednesday or Thursday.’
‘Fine. We’ll be in Varanasi for a week or so. I’ll call you on Tuesday.’
You know you’re in Varanasi as soon as your train pulls in. The platforms are populated by bearded, saffron-clad sadhus – carrying little stainless-steel tiffin tins (for food) and big Shiva tridents – and lazy, brown cows. And all the signs are in Hindi. It smells like revivalism.
‘Do you need help with your bags?’ I ask Murty.
‘No, no,’ he replies with confidence, ‘a couple of my students will help me.’
Sure enough, the train has barely stopped when two youths, fresh-faced, energetic, eager to please, appear. They greet Murty by bending down and touching his feet, a sign of respect. He lets them then acts as if the gesture is entirely unnecessary: a common Indian pantomime. I’m amazed. He’s not even teaching any more, yet here they are, nine o’clock on a chilly Sunday morning, picking up his bags. If an academic tried this in the West, he’d be laughed at and maybe face misconduct charges.
And a couple of days later
It’s 6:15 pm. The meeting Murty mentioned is upon us. I’m feeling weak, like a hollow version of myself, but I’m here. It’s an odd choice of venue, a room at the bottom of a regulation apartment block, bare but for a metal-formica table and half-a-dozen stainless-steel chairs…. I’m sitting with Murty, three or four other local luminaries, and two of his ex-students. The latter might be the ones who met him on the train, but I can’t be sure. I was too zonked. The luminaries include a high-flying architect, a female English Literature academic, and a lawyer. And there’s a guy with one hand who asks me several times about Australian ‘folk tales’ and can’t comprehend that we don’t have such an oeuvre, as India does. Maybe he’s after an Aussie equivalent to The Song of the Cowherd….
The book keeps wilfully breaking all the traditional moulds or superimposing them very adroitly – the novel, short story, theatre, history, philosophy, spiritualism – they are all in a dance! It’s much like a potpourri, a heady cocktail; though the booze stays always soft and light-hearted. And once you are caught in the flow – you are carried forward effortlessly and delicately.
And some random quotes from the novel -
I first visited India in 1984 and have been back numerous times. It is a thread running through my life, like love, the sea, literature, music, enhancing the drama of being. Why India? That question’s been on my mind for 30 years
I want Anna and India to get along, as you do when introducing loved ones. I want her to be entranced by the otherness of what she sees, ancient beliefs and lived traditions the West abandoned long ago.
As we ramble along with the narrative, the ancient Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsang often comes to mind. Sean lands in Delhi and peregrinates through cities and places like Mathura, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur,Ajmer, Pushkar, Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, and so forth, taking you through his experiences, with Anna, his daughter playing all along as a contrapuntal tune.The narrative is often embellished with epigraphs.
‘If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India!’
Varanasi brings out a yearning for oblivion. The river flows, silent, shining. It will take you away, to eternity.
The Ganga, and the Aarti, are incarnations of Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy that moves through the universe. Shakti is female power symbolised as a deity. She is responsible for creation and is the agent of all change. So the river is an embodiment of this energy, which initiates change. Death certainly is a change. The Aarti honours the river and embodies its energy, like prayer. This is good, a Hindu concept I can understand.
My attitude towards India is, at base, contradictory. I can’t live within it, I can’t live without it.
My time will come. I’m not finished with India yet, and I pray she’s not finished with me.
Sean had sent me a draft copy as he was still working on the book. It lay in my file. But now that the cat is soon to be out of the bag, it shows its wagging tail in this pre-view.
He kept sending emails. Even as the work was about to begin, he emailed on 21 May, 2011:I returned from India last week, and I have had to deal with many, many awaiting emails. I do miss India very much … I fully agree: it was a very felicitous meeting on the train, and I look forward to staying in touch with you in the future.
Ten days later he wrote again:
Thank you for your perception of me as an Indian. I am very happy to read that! I have great affection for Indian people, so I take it as a real compliment. An autorickshaw driver actually said the same thing to me when I bargained hard with him for a good fare.
He further wrote:
When I got back from India, I started reading EM Forster's A Passage to India. I have to say that I didn’t like it, and gave up after 114 pp. There is too much style, and too little substance in it. Very little action occurs, and Forster's expression is a bit too self-consciusly clever for my taste. He seems to love his own cleverness much more than he loves any of his characters. He satirises all of them (so at least he is even-handed in a racial sense). A great contrast to this was Kipling's Kim, which I read while in India. Kipling has clear and strong affection for most of his characters, especially the Indian ones. The silliest characters in his book are the English, who think they run things but actually have no idea what is going on around them. And there's no shortage of action. I enjoyed it immensely!
The book will be out in India on 18 February, 2021 on Kindle for Rs. 449. And you can read this blurb of the book on Amazon.in. Just click on it for a pre-booking!
Writer and editor
Sean Doyle has loved India for decades, so when his first-born, Anna, finishes
high school, they set off on a two-month trip. She wants an adventure; he wants
a holiday. But India is no cakewalk, especially for the faint-hearted, and Anna
has not only recently overcome a personal trauma that’s left her feeling
fragile, she has also never experienced anything like the gargantuan, pulsating
Subcontinent she’s walking into. There’s no doubt about it: Sean is nervous.
Torn between keeping his daughter safe and giving her the space to embrace India as he has, Sean undergoes one of the most intense, challenging experiences of his life. He knew Anna would be confronted, but he didn’t imagine he would, too. Amidst the noise, the sensory overload and the extremes of life that typify India, they discover more about themselves, and each other, than they thought possible.
Blending erudition, humour and paternal angst, this is a beautifully nuanced exploration of a father–daughter relationship set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most culturally and spiritually rich countries.
Two endorsements of the book
‘A wonderful illustration of the author’s extensive knowledge of the history and culture of India, his experience of previous visits and, above all, his great love for the country. Unlike all other travel books about India, and uniquely appealing, is the fact that here the author is accompanied by his just-out-of-school daughter. His fondness for her, his protectiveness, his eagerness to show her places he has seen is truly charming. The book draws the reader so much into the feelings and experiences of these two that Delhi, Ajmer, Varanasi and all the places visited are interesting because of them, as part of their experience. This is an achievement we associate more with an accomplished novelist than a travel writer. Travel writing is at its best when, as here, the interest in the travel is mirrored by our empathy with the traveller.’
Professor Rajiva Verma,
Former Head, Department of English, University of Delhi; former President, The Shakespeare Society of India
‘A great account … thoroughly enjoyable reading. The narrative flows beautifully, and the two strands – encountering India, and the pair’s engagement with the place and each other – hold together nicely. I enjoyed it all. Doyle neatly sets up all the ambivalences of being on the road again in India: the fun of it, and everything else. He has a fine knack of evoking place and the circumstances of travelling: the unaccustomed spaces, the accompanying noise, colour, activity and people. The story of the author and his daughter is particularly well handled – their spoken and non-spoken interactions, what they feel as the trip unfolds.
‘This engaging travel narrative of India today is also a perceptive chronicle of India in its heyday as a counterculture hub some half a century or so ago. The book is both a commentary on the present – of what India is like now - and a record of the past. It manages both roles with great skill. It becomes effectively a primary document for the experiences of a generation of visitors, travellers and sojourners on the subcontinent, a record and explanation of their involvement and style of life. All in all, a fine achievement.’
Dr Jim Masselos,
Senior Research Associate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney; Fellow of the Australian Academy for the Humanities, of the Australia India Institute, and of the Asiatic Society in Mumbai – one of fewer than 10 foreigners elected since 1947 to a society that traces its origins to 1804.
I also post here the book’s cover and some photos of Sean when he visited my flat in Lucknow, in 2014. I hope we are soon face to face with a best-seller!
Text & Photos (C) Dr BSM Murty