From Our Travel Archives
An Embarrassing Crisis and a Tale of Two Women
Colin Todhunter in Allahabad
was trapped. I was trapped in a hotel I didn't want to be in, in a town
I wanted to get away from. The cycle rickshaw had delivered me to the
hotel the previous evening, and through the hammering and banging of
a terrible hangover my humiliation and predicament was beginning to
dawn on me. I should have been half way to Chennai and feeling good,
but was festering in bed having achieved only a journey to the railway
station and back.
It had all started ten days earlier. I had arranged to meet Shweta in
Allahabad. We met and the three days we had spent together had been
good. Shweta was not like the other women I had known; they had all
been Western and she was Indian. I had never really got to hang out
with an Indian woman before. We had initially met a few months earlier
on a train and I had returned to India for another long stint and had
come to see Shweta for a few days.
On the first day, we visited a restaurant in one of the city's up-market
hotels. It was the type of place where annoying waiters hover and insist
on attending to every simple need as if you possessed only half a brain
and are incapable of pouring water into your own glass. The trick is
to be quick and fill it yourself before they can get to the bottle.
Such service often borders on the intrusive. But it was to be expected,
after all we were in an "international" hotel. When Shweta
ordered anything she would speak to the waiter in English. Her English
wasn't too good; nor was his. She was a native Hindi speaker and so
was he. So what's with the English, I asked Shweta. Her explanation
was that as we were in an international hotel, English is the main language.
But we were in Allahabad, a provincial city that rarely sees any foreigners.
Being an "international" person myself, I pretended that I
understood the English "thing," but I didn't really. We were
being ever so sophisticated and international.
I ordered a Coke: "Coke, please." The waiter looked puzzled
asking me to repeat my order. I repeated about three times, but he was
none the wiser - nor was Shweta. I concluded that my pronunciation needed
adjusting. "Cok," I said. He beamed in acknowledgement and
said, "Ah, Cok!" I thought to myself: "Yes, that is what
I have been saying for the past two minutes - are you deaf?"
Divided by a common language!
The next day we visited museums, went to the Nehru House (which has
been turned into a tourist attraction), and took a boat ride on the
river where the 2001 Kumbha Mela took place. I loved being with Shweta.
She was serene and exuded an inner peace, no doubt developed from years
of meditation that she had done. She had a certain coolness, a particular
sophistication that I was attracted to. To me, she was a mystery woman.
Such women possess an air of aloofness that intrigues. I could have
fallen for this girl. In fact, I was on the verge.
There aren't many who make me feel that way, but she did. In fact, there
have been only two in the last eight years. I can't even say that I
can count them on one hand; just forty per cent of one. The other was
Lise from Copenhagen, who I also met in India, but a few years later.
She was a similar type: cool and intriguing. Oh, and I nearly forgot,
both were very good-looking - which kind of helps! Shweta, with her
big eyes, long features and hair down to her legs; and Lise with long,
straggly Viking hair, a hint of Latin looks and a killer smile.
Both women came from different ends of the cultural spectrum. Shweta's
interactions with men had been limited and she was couched in traditional
Hindu ways, performing daily puja, visiting temples, and was well-read
in ancient Vedic texts. Lise was Western; had worked as a hostess in
Japan, in a bar in Copenhagen, and was an independent worldly-wise traveller.
But they had one thing in common: both were strong, self-assured women. But the similarities didn't stop there. I wanted both of them, but ended
up with neither.
It's not too surprising: I always want what I can't have and reject
what I can. Perhaps it's some personality trait, some symptom of the
Western malaise - some kind of something or other. I don't really know.
Anyway, Lise was in the future and Shweta was here and now. One day
I even had a rush of blood to the head and invited her to the UK, saying
I would finance the short trip. It would have been a great opportunity
for her to see the West and to experience a different culture. Alas,
"It would not be allowed," she told me. Her family would not
approve of it. "It would be possible only if I was married,"
she added. I didn't probe. But I suspected that being married meant
not to me, but to some Indian man she was yet to meet.
Shweta had to return to her home-town for a family function and I was
left to my own devices in Allahabad. After she went, I just wanted to
leave. The whole place reminded me of her and I just wanted to forget.
So I was preoccupied with getting a train out of the place. Unfortunately for me
it was the winter holiday time when many people take their vacation.
Consequently, the trains were booked up for days to come. I managed
to get one that would be leaving in six days time. Six days in Allahabad:
a town of chilly December mornings, cycle rickshaws, grimness and memories
of Shweta. The thought of six more days filled me with dread. I had
already had a gutful of Allahabad, its museums, temples, and holy rivers.
The only thing that kept me going was my daily visits to the Indian
Coffee House (ICH). For those who may not be aware, the ICH is a chain
of basic restaurants serving cheap snacks and the best coffee in the
whole of India, and are to be found throughout the country. Huge black
and white framed photographs of Nehru, Gandhi, and Indira Gandhi usually
adorn the walls of each one and the waiters are dressed in shabby (off)
white uniforms. They are pretty basic places where decor takes a backseat
to the delicious dosas, sandwiches and spicy dishes on offer.
This ICH was no different. The place was always packed with men discussing
the issues of the day and I usually left on a caffeine-induced high
after having swilled down four cups of coffee. My twice-daily visits
were sadly to be the highlight of my day.
After one hundred cups of coffee and endless visits to the ICH, the
day of my journey eventually arrived. At last, I could check out of
my dreary hotel and leave even drearier Allahabad behind. Or so I thought.
I didn't account for the effects of Old Monk Indian rum. I am not a
spirits drinker. If I drink, it is always beer and nothing stronger.
I can drink copious amounts of the stuff and still function quite normally;
but a few glasses of spirits sends my head into a spiralling whirl,
resulting in a pig-sick nausea that leaves me with a feeling of wanting
to be dead.
why on earth did I buy a bottle of Old Monk on the day of my departure?
I remember now - it was to give to the hotel staff as a New Year's
gift. I had given them a good glassful each, yet still had half
a bottle left. The question should be - why on earth did I proceed
to start to drink the stuff myself? I suppose it was out of relief
and a celebratory occasion based on my departure. I was about to
leave Allahabad and head to the tropical south. But celebration
soon turned into complete and utter misery.
a few glasses before getting into the cycle rickshaw and heading to
the railway station. I needed to find berth number thirty-four in coach
S4 on the train heading to Chennai. The bony rickshaw man was pedalling
away to his heart's delight when I asked him to pull over for a vomit-stop.
I staggered toward the roadside to throw up. Yes, good old Old Monk
had kicked in. Five minutes later there is another vomit-stop. Well,
after three vomit-stops in twenty minutes we finally reach the station.
I pay the rickshaw man and head into the station with my brain in a
swirl and that wanting to be dead nauseating feeling running amuck.
The board containing information about trains and platforms gyrates
before my eyes. Eventually, I manage to focus on it. After having read
it four times and having forgot what I had seen three times, I forge
onward to find platform five. I decide to walk at a brisk pace to try
to give the impression that I am stone cold sober despite being very
drunk. Instinct tells me that I am more likely to stagger if I walk
slowly and then everyone will see that I am under the effects. They
could probably tell this anyhow, but warped drunken thinking has a logic
all of its own.
The crowds are swaying about in front of me. This just adds to my confusion.
Or is it I who is swaying about in front of them? I eventually find
the right platform and my train, but negotiating the correct coach is
just too much. I am unable to focus upon, let alone remember, the coach
numbers. I admit failure.
At this point, I will take you back to the beginning. It is the next
day and I am back in the same hotel I vacated the day before. The hangover
is horrendous. The whole episode is best forgotten (even though I have
now placed it on Hacks for the whole world to see).
Years years later I find myself in another cycle rickshaw,
travelling through another city I don't much care for - Delhi. I am
sitting next to the girl who accounts for the other twenty per cent
of one hand. We are speaking in English; it's all very sophisticated.
On this occasion it is Lise who is about to walk out of my life. We
are heading to the railway station for her to board the Tamil Nadu Express
to Chennai. Yes, Chennai, once again.
After she goes I am stuck in Delhi for another two weeks, waiting for
my flight home. It's déjà vu; substitute Shweta for Lise,
and Allahabad for Delhi and it's the same scenario. But this time I
am adamant that there will be no shameful Old Monk episode while I wait
to leave. And guess what? There wasn't. The only thing on my mind was
coffee, Lise, and of course, Cok! I think I'd learnt my lesson - well,
until the next time.
© Colin Todhunter July 2003
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