In transit: Delhi to Deoghar

In transit: Delhi to Deoghar

In many ways, it simply has to be experienced. An overnight train across India, and the opportunity to view all the pockets of space between cities and towns… it is intense, and it is disorienting.

For me, the journey began with delay… although I had arrived at Delhi’s bustling central station with plenty of time for my 5 pm departure, almost immediately, my train was pushed back by 3 hours. I stood for that time on the open platform, as the night cooled around me and the tracks came alive with countless rats scavenging garbage and debris. I watched one large, particularly bold rat jump straight into the hand-held bag of one man, apparently in search of food within. The man swatted almost casually at the large brown rodent, and I pulled my own handbag tighter to my shoulder in mild horror.

Slowly, the platform filled with passengers, most wrapped in shaals and blankets, and squatting in a bird-like pose to rest their legs and huddle against the cold, night air. Many took a passing interest in my presence, and what likely seemed an absurd amount of luggage. When my train finally arrived, a friendly unknown local (who likely pitied my lost expression) helped me on board and showed me where to lock and chain my luggage, before he bid me farewell and left me to the journey ahead. In many ways, I was relieved to be on the train, and to simply be underway, at last.

My train compartment was in fact a large, long space that was much more comfortable and private than I had anticipated. I was provided with my own pillow, woolen blanket, bottled water, reading light and curtains. Nestled up against the window as I was, in a stretched out position, with nothing but glass between myself and the world racing by, this proved to be an incredible way to see the country-side, even in the dark of night.

It was as the train pulled away from Delhi station and into the darkness of the unknown between myself and my soon-to-be hometown, that the tears started. They surprised me, but then again, they were inevitable. This was the moment that was destined to arrive – my own internal recognition of where I had traveled (India), and what this place represented to me until now (my long lost sister). In a way, I could sense Britta nearby, possibly re-experiencing her own self-proclaimed “Motherland”. Oddly, this feeling was not so much sad as it was deep, like the ocean.

After several hours of watching, followed by several hours of fitful sleep, constantly rising to check the time and the latest station stop, I decided to pack up my sleeping gear and watch the dawn break over the incredible expanses of green field, shanty towns, and lone travelers on foot. These expanses, backlit by early light, were like movie reels, running scripts and drama in parallel worlds. I could glimpse them, and imagine the personal lives in each solitary character featured for a moment, but I wasn’t able to immerse or ask questions or attain closure. As often happens to me when traveling, I felt a kinship with these unknown characters, and their transient journeys, even more-so than I sometimes do with people I live and work for many years.

Eventually, using hand gestures and speaking haltingly to some of my nearby cabin mates, I managed to determine when my own station stop was approaching. I even jostled my way through the knot of passengers at the exit door, luggage in tow, in the desperately short 2-minute stopover at a place called “Jasihdi”. Somehow… I had arrived.

At this point, early Saturday morning, all I knew for sure was that settling into my rented room and shopping for immediate needs (blanket, mattress, groceries) was the objective for the remainder of my weekend. On Monday, I would begin my work placement with an organization called “Chetna Vikas” – but until then, I was free to adjust to my new surroundings and rest my travel-weary bones.

As I walked through the cavernous dirt roads of Deoghar, finding the spots to make essential purchases such as lentils, dish soap, milk and mosquito spray, I alternately found myself both excited and uncertain at the prospect of spending 6 months in this town. Deoghar is extremely rural. The roads are clogged with debris and trash, marring what might otherwise have been a picturesque place. To be a foreigner in Deoghar is an event of epic proportions – this is simply not a place that is visited by tourists. So, on the streets, men, women and children alike stop and stare with intensity. And then, oh how they laugh when you greet them with “Namashkar” or “Namaste”… This is so unexpected that they forget even to greet you in return!

Shopping at the market is also a unique experience… You are often graciously seated on a small stool, perhaps served a cup of chai, while the shop owner climbs around the interior of his small market stall, slowly collecting the items that you have indicated on your shopping list. The shop owners are happy even to run off to a different vendor to make a purchase on your behalf and bring an item back to you. Again, the locals laugh in amusement if you ask them for recipes and instruction on how to cook traditional dishes using the variety of beans, pulses and seeds available.

Overall, from what I have seen in my first few days, Deoghar’s inhabitants live simple lives. Families come and go to work each day from homesteads that make your heart clench. As you pass by a building, you might regard the meager structure as empty, but then you spot the tell-tale morning pot on a small, exterior fire… Here, “luxury” goes no further than simple warmth (be it chai or food) in the belly.

In retrospect, my 30 hours and first days in transit from Delhi to Deoghar have been an important part of the journey. Deoghar, which is small and rural, is commonly called “religious or spiritual” and holds an abundance of temples. In fact, the town itself lies along a path of significant pilgrimage. I already know that life here will hold its challenges, but I also already feel that it has a center of peacefulness and authenticity that I am longing to discover…

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[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in India years ago. I lived and worked in a very remote, rural town called Deoghar, near the border of Bangladesh. This specific journal entry was written on January 26, 2008.]

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