Jupiters Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph

BOOK: Jupiters Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph
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Jupiter’s Travels


Ted Simon




When the reserve tank ran dry too, and the engine choked and died, I guessed I was ten or fifteen miles from Gaya. The thought was disagreeable. It might mean spending the night there, and somewhere I had read that Gaya was the dirtiest town in India.

I let the bike roll off the asphalt on to the grass under a shade tree. The trunk of the tree was stout and twisted with prominent roots and a grey scaly bark. Drooping clusters of small dry leaves gave a medium shade. It was a common tree in India though I still could not remember its name.

I tucked my gloves into my helmet and stood by the bike looking up and down the country road and across the field of green wheat wondering who was going to help me this time, and what it would lead to. I did not doubt that help would come, and with it most probably some unexpected twist in my fortunes. It had taken years to achieve that measure of confidence and calm, and as I waited I allowed myself some pleasure in knowing it.

My thoughts brushed over the years and miles of the journey, tracing the fear as it had waxed and waned along the way, trying to hold it all together and reassure myself that there really had been a beginning. Without a beginning how could there be an end? At times, and more frequently now, I could feel the tiredness invading my bones, bleaching my retina and raising a mist on the horizon of my mind. Soon it would have to end. There were many men walking along the road. Most of them wore loose cotton clothing, once white but stained right through by the reddish brown soil of Bihar. It caught the sun softly, and the people passed by under the trees like pale shadows taking up no space.

Few motor vehicles were on the road. Some men were riding bicycles, and a few drove ox carts or rode in pony cabs. There were some buzzing auto-rickshaws too, which are three-wheeled scooters with cabs for passengers. They were unlikely to have spare petrol. In the state of Bihar you could get three or four meals for the price of a litre of petrol.

A taxi came towards me full of people pressing forward. The driver was bent over the wheel with his dark face thrust against the windscreen and all the expression squeezed out of him. The wheels flew up and down on the bumps, and the taxi slithered and juddered across the waves of tar as though trying to escape, drawn to its destination only by the concerted prayers of the people inside it.

By this time several men had stopped to observe me and then reluctantly walked on, but now one came who spoke a little English. His colour and features indicated that he was a Brahmin, though his knotted cord, if he had one, was covered by his shawl and skirt. He told me straight away that he was very poor. I replied by telling him that I had no petrol.

'Village is there,' he said. 'Not far.'

He stopped another man coming along slowly on a bicycle with a shopping bag slung from the handlebars, and spoke to him in Hindi.

'He says they will be having petrol. It is two miles. Not far.'

I thanked him and waited. I felt sure there would be no petrol at the next village but could not say so. There were more words spoken in Hindi.

'This man will go on his bicycle. How much petrol you are wishing?'

It did not seem to me that the man had volunteered but he appeared to accept the Brahmin's authority without question.

'That's wonderful,' I said. T will need a litre,' and started to fish in my pockets.

'No, no, good Sir. Afterwards you can pay. Now he will go.'

The Brahmin's prophecy was instantly fulfilled. The man turned his bicycle and went. The Brahmin then mentioned again, as a matter of purely academic interest, that he was poor, this time adding that I was rich. I felt that he was striving towards some kind of dialogue which would result, without his even having to wish it, in my turning my fortune over to him and continuing on foot. This might well have happened in ancient Indian legend, but I was not the Warrior he took me for, and he was not Sage enough for me, though he had a sly air about him.

So I withdrew politely from the conversation and sat at the foot of the tree to write and take pleasure in the afternoon. It was February. The light was still cool and golden, and there was peace here too, a kind of detachment that I found only rarely in public places in India. It seemed a perfect time to put down on paper what had been accumulating in my mind since the day, four days back, when I made my great mistake.

In the three years of my journey I had never made an error like it. I had planned to ride to Calcutta from Darjeeling, a long ride for one day on Indian roads, but the highway is better than most. It parallels the border of Bangladesh and, for part of the way, runs in company with the Ganges. What I had actually done on meeting the Ganges had been to take the highway that runs upstream to Patna and Benares. But had I
it? There was no recollection of choice. I had followed the holy river, secure in the knowledge that it was flowing on my right hand side, unaware that I had crossed it in a confusion of streams and bridges and was on the west

side and not the east. When I had noticed my mistake I had already travelled one hundred and fifty miles in the opposite direction to Calcutta, a sufficient distance to change my life.

Why hadn't I noticed where the sun lay? Or which way the river was flowing? Or that I had crossed into Bihar from West Bengal? I prided myself that these observations had become second nature to me. Why had they failed me there?

This enormous deflection in my path had led me straight towards the heart and soul of India, to the birthplace of Buddhism and the most sacred Hindu places. On examination my reasons for rushing to Calcutta had seemed trivial, banal, though still, in my tired and confused state, desirable. Then, sadly at first, I had abandoned them and embraced instead this strange quirk in my destiny. It had led to remarkable experiences, the last of which had found me in a glider, high above Patna, whirling in a thermal current alongside a flock of big brown ferocious birds of prey.

All this took a while to record, and I still kept the pleasant sense of having been nudged towards some fateful event. My Brahmin had drifted away, tired of explaining me to every passer-by. His emissary to the village had not returned. I stood up and, as something to do, beckoned to an approaching car. It was a polished limousine driven by a chauffeur. Two fat women, lolling in the back, observed me with amusement, while the chauffeur intensified his glare at the road ahead and accelerated past me. At the same time a lorry was coming towards them from Gaya. The lorry moved further out into the road, and the car was driven, screeching horribly, into a shallow ditch. The lorry driver smiled at me and held up his thumb, and I grinned my appreciation.

A few minutes later two men on an Enfield motorcycle stopped just beyond me and walked back. The driver would have gone on, but the pillion rider insisted on stopping and, as it turned out, he was the owner of the machine. He was a young man, stubbily built and very short even in his stylish high-heeled shoes. He wore tightly fitting flared trousers, an embroidered yellow waistcoat and a magenta turban of the kind used by members of the Rajput or Kshatrya caste. His bearded face carried an expression of almost unbearable solemnity, like a boy trying to show respect at a funeral. At first I thought he was in the grip of extreme sadness, but the expression never varied, and in fact he was on the way to his brother's marriage ceremony and an occasion of great joy.

Eventually, between us, we solved my problem. It involved many people, including a retired vice-Chancellor of Magadh University from whose carburettor we pumped the necessary litre, and it was very satisfying to all concerned. The shy cyclist also returned from the village, without petrol, and smiled most happily to see us all at work. He would accept nothing but a warm handshake for his trouble. The vice-Chancellor left for Gaya, having invited me to drop round for tea. Then I also rode off, with escort, on my way to a Rajput wedding.

And they brought on the dancing girls.

There were two girls, but only one of them danced at any one time, while the other sat between the tabla player and the violinist.

We were several hundred men sitting on sheets of thick white cotton spread over an area of twenty feet by forty feet or so. The day had gone, and the sky was replaced by a great multi-coloured awning lit with fluorescent tubes. Most of the men wore suits, though only the oldest kept their jackets. Naturally we all had our shoes off, and they were ranged round the edge of the tent. My friend, whose name was Raj, warned me mournfully to watch out for my things. Already, he said, four pairs of shoes and two suitcases had disappeared.

The air was at that perfect temperature in which the skin luxuriates, and scented by the incense sticks smouldering in front of the bridegroom. The groom lay back on a throne of bolsters and quilts, with his paternal grandfather on one side and the pundit on the other, both alert and upright and with bright yellow turbans on their heads. The groom seemed quite detached, his eyes barely open. 'He has been fasting for two days,' murmured Raj. 'He will not eat until tomorrow after the wedding.'

Two rifles lay on cushions in front of the groom pointing over our heads. At significant moments they would be fired to frighten off hostile tribes, for the Rajput are a warrior caste.

The principal dancing girl held the floor most of the time. She was my favourite too, although her shape was far from my ideal. Her arms and shoulders were impeccable and moved with sinuous grace, and her face was full and pretty. The rest of her was wrapped tight in bodice and sari, but she proudly maintained an enormous and agile paunch which seemed somehow to be much older than she was. I found myself watching it a great deal, amazed at the liberties it took, but distracted as I was by her belly I could not ignore her face. With true artistry she had created an expression of such supreme contempt for men that if I had been alone in a room with her I would undoubtedly have withered beneath her scorn. And just as surely, if it had softened towards me at all, I would have fallen into a state of deepest bliss.

It must have been founded in bitter personal experience.

'They are prostitutes, you know,' Raj whispered, in a voice charged with darkest meaning, and I saw that this had to be the most important thing about her.

The dance itself was a strange and fragmentary thing, and at first I thought it quite ineffectual and hardly worth the ten rupee notes that she peeled off her audience and passed to the tabla player. She would stand,

tapping one hennaed foot, shaking the ankle bells, swaying to the beat, and arrange her body into one of several positions, perhaps a hip and shoulder pushing forward, legs slightly bent, head tilted to one side. Then, catching a particular phrase from the musicians, she would shuffle forward across the cloth, moving whatever there was to be moved (the belly moving itself in perfect harmony), for just six steps, before straightening up, letting her arms fall to her sides, and sweeping us with a stupendous pout that said quite plainly 'There, you bastards.'

In those six steps she said everything there was to say about men and women. Most of the time she merely swayed and sang, gesturing mechanically with her smooth, lovely arms, making not the least effort to put meaning or feeling into the song. Men shouted insults at her, elders castigated her for being too greedy or ordered her to moderate her behaviour. She always did as she was told, but always her scorn triumphed. And I found myself longing to see, just one more time, those six derisive steps.

When she stopped to rest and her relief came on, and when I was not being cross-examined by other guests about every most intimate detail of my life, my eyes would seek out the father of the bridegroom. He also wore the brilliant yellow turban, but sat among the crowd. Clean-shaven and less solemn than Raj, he nevertheless had a tough and imperturbable manner and his smile was controlled and distant. I watched him because I had begun to wonder whether he was the reason I had found myself following such unexpected paths during the previous days. One of the first things Raj had told me about his family, when we stopped for beer on our way to the wedding was that his father had great powers. He was a clairvoyant, a seer, he could read a man's soul and destiny.

'He will take your hand and tell you things about yourself. He has done this for many people. It is too important. He will do it for you.' Raj was becoming morosely excited by the idea.

'Palmistry,' I said.

BOOK: Jupiters Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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