Tall and tan and young and lovely he may not have been, but it’s not every day you spend your husband’s birthday sleeping with a 63-year old chap from Uttar Pradesh.
Poor Paul. Exciting as it may sound to have your birthday in India rather than Forest Hill, due to the time constraints elsewhere, he had to go to two business meetings on our last day in Delhi. Even Clover’s manic singing of Happy Birthday at breakfast probably didn’t make up for that.
While Paul worked, the girls and I took a ‘slum tour’ with Reality Tours, visiting an area on the edge of the city that has become a centre for the garment industry. It was stiflingly hot, exceptionally muddy, and the girls were utter stars as they were led through the streets and forced to hold hands with the women sorting out scraps of fabric on every corner.
Thanks to lovely Pradeep, our ‘Reality’ guide, we now know that slums are not bad places – the definition merely means that the land is owned by the government and illegally settled – nothing to do with the quality of housing. Though it wasn’t great, I’ve seen worse in Mexico.
They are certainly hives of industry, sorting bags of fabric to sell back to the manufacturers to spin into thread. There was power as well as decent roads (though only running water for half an hour a day). In fact, Okhla was humming with micro-businesses – not to mention goats, cows and pigs.
Daisy took the point I think – I caught her trying to build a slum on Minecraft later – she clearly thinks they are well worth having.
After the slum, lunch at a chi-chi South Indian restaurant where the children ate mainly dosa, snaffled the guide’s paratha and were delighted to be presented with a plate of fennel seed and sugar for pudding (they left the fennel seed). We also saw India Gate, Lodi Gardens and found out that both of our Indian tour guides could sing Count on Me by Bruno Mars – quite the singalong going on in the back of the car.
After the slum tour, the train journey – which is where our confusion really set in. In India, it turns out, trains have names, trains have numbers, trains have crowds of people, but there’s no-one really there to help. Due to an administrative error, Clover and I ended up in one carriage and Daisy and Paul in another, and it took heck of a kerfuffle to get us on the train at all. Paul’s birthday cake, by this point, had subsidedinto a kind of strawberry sludge at the bottom of its box. Fortunately he saw the funny side.
That’s how I ended up sleeping with a 63 year old from Uttar Pradesh. I know he was 63, because they kindly print your ages on the passenger charts for every train – which I think is a little too much information, but then I am British. Turns out there is no such thing as too much information for Indians – Paul was relentlessly quizzed on how he proposed to me, by the lady travelling to Bihar in the bunk opposite, and I heard all about the two-week tour that Mr Varanasi and his wife (in the top bunk) had taken to Europe last month. A Thomas Cook tour, they told me proudly, 14 days, eleven countries.
London merited a whole two days – including the London Eye, Madame Tussauds and the Tower. They must have been exhausted, I ventured. “Yes” they replied proudly. Their conclusion? Avoid Italy – not worth going to apparently, and full of pickpockets, -even though they had seen both the Coliseum AND the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Switzerland, however, they adored. And the tea is rubbish everywhere in Europe except the UK. Even if I can’t agree with him on Italy, I’ll go with that.
What else do I know about Mr Varanasi? His daughter-in-law cooks excellent okra – I know because they kindly shared their ‘takeaway’- and he was certainly very solicitous for our welfare, and for the safety of our bags. He also snores (we were all of about two foot apart on the bottom sleeper bunks) and likes to get up at six thirty, even though the train was an hour late and we were all just sitting around.
Luckily, Clover agreed that this was the time for getting up – Daisy in the other carriage slumbered on until we had to wake her. She has always found a sleeper train very soporific. I replaced my morning tea with chai – very sweet, but surprisingly refreshing if you don’t think of it as tea – and Clover graciously accepted the free digestive biscuits that came with the chai from everyone else in the vicinity. And their sweets, and their smiles, and a million pats on the head. At 10am we rolled into Varanasi – Lord Shiva’s City of Good Death, and into what felt like a different universe.