Travel: All the repose of 1,000 miles in a city square

The passage across India is a journey everyone must make, writes Jeremy Atiyah

It was something that every sane and rational human being had to do once in their lifetime: cross the Indian subcontinent, from Lahore to Kathmandu. That was what a guru told me in 1983. He had long hair and spoke more slowly than weeds grow. But he lived in a coffee shop in Freak Street, and I was inclined to agree with him.

I was only 20 at the time and had completed the journey in question, which helped. I had also just had a meal of muesli, chocolate cake, spaghetti bolognese, lemon meringue pie, red wine, lamb chops and cappuccino. Mogul monuments were all very well but, when it came to home cooking, Kathmandu was tops.

My pilgrimage had begun two months earlier in the rain in Lahore, a city containing Aurangzeb's Bedshahi Mosque, as well as the tombs of Jehangir and Nur Jehan, but not the barest whiff of lemon meringue pie. Instead I ate biryanis in the railway station, plotting routes to Delhi.

Lahore and Amritsar were barely 60 miles apart, but the journey took hours. The border into India was marked by gangs of uniformed men on either side of a road, spitting at the thought of each other. My passport was stamped so viciously by one official that a table leg cracked. I arrived in Amritsar and walked all day amid mud and flies before arriving, bewildered, at a hotel guarded by a man with a scimitar.

At night I slept with frogs croaking under the bed. When the fan stopped turning, I stopped sleeping. For breakfast I drank tea so sweet that it made me retch; only by telling myself I was drinking a form of hot chocolate did I learn to swallow it. But then there were the cool marble and still waters of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs: the repose of a thousand miles confined to a city square.

If Amritsar was hot, what would Delhi be like? I spent a night queuing for a ticket on the daytime train and then fell unconscious with tiredness. On arrival I found Delhi railway station so full of rigid sleeping bodies, I could not avoid them. It didn't matter. The city was asleep. Outside, only the deranged and the all-night barbers stayed on two feet.

In the morning I took a tour of Delhi, which cost pounds 1, including lunch. I didn't know where they were taking me, because I didn't understand the commentary. The Red Fort. The Mahatma's Memorial. The Qutb Minaret. And all of India in between. The lunch was good though.

Back then, New Delhi was a quiet place. Connaught Place was empty and losing its paint. Old Delhi, with its teeming millions and rickshaw traffic jams, was the centre of life. But it was monsoon season. With black storms beating on the trees, I lay by an open window, reading train timetables and histories of the Moguls. I understood neither.

From Delhi I travelled east along the Ganges plain. The land was all aflood. Palm trees were knee-deep in the rice paddies. On the train I was drip-fed sweet tea in small clay cups passed through the window bars. The city of Patna, when I got there, resembled a leprosy camp. I spent a day roaming the bandit territory of northern Bihar, asking people for the bus to Kathmandu.

The border post to Nepal was lit by candles. The official conducted his business in Y-fronts; he asked if I would promise to send him a letter. I spent a night on the border, under a mosquito net that prevented the mosquitoes inside from getting out. Who cared? The next night, if all went well, I would feast on lemon meringue pie and buffalo steak.

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