People were constantly scurrying around our hotel in Bodh Gaya that week. Most of the rooms were empty, but the staff seemed aflutter, as though something huge was on the horizon. As we arrived that night to check out, to prepare to leave Bodh Gaya, we saw the great white tent outside the building, heard the sound of instruments and voices and clinking glasses.
Wedding guests, gilt and bejewelled and glittering, glided across recently scrubbed and polished floors. Everyone looked elegant and immaculate, and we attempted to occupy the smallest, most insignificant corner of the hotel lobby. Was it possible to ruin their evening by looking particularly underdressed? Men in suits and women in dresses raised eyebrows as they passed, and we decided to pretend we were travelling entertainers hired for the event. Our general shagginess suggested vagrant jugglers.
A dozen cooks rushed around the kitchen, a posse of instrumentalists assembled outdoors. We were fairly certain we heard live animals. Surely, trundling down the road, was an enormous carriage, formerly a pumpkin, drawn by two pearl-white unicorns. We kept quiet, in hopes that we wouldn’t ruin too much of the mood. In time, two adorable fifth graders approached us, eyes twinkling. He was in a coat and tie, both maybe a little too big. She was in a dress the colour of lilacs at sunset.
“Will you be joining us for the wedding?” she asked in perfect, delicate English. Her partner leaned in close, excited.
“No,” we said. “We wish,” we thought.
Our driver arrived, and we swept our wretched presence away from the glowing, undersea ethereality of the wedding and set out into the night. The road between Gaya and Bodh Gaya was famous for its bandits. The sky was a black vacuum, and the forest before us was caught in two conical beams of light, so much whipping branches and snatches of road. We were certain we would not be robbed or killed. Certain.
In the distance, a collection of men. They beat an enormous drum that rested on a palanquin, surrounded by lights, burning incense. Their voices were raised to the darkened heavens. We passed them, screaming out into the night, and watched as they disappear in the inky ocean of road. Shadows, swallowed by shadow.
We drove on. The road was long, and we wound our arms through the straps of our bags, hoping they did not tumble haphazardly out the back of our vehicle as our driver veered wildly towards the train station, many kilometres and so much darkness away.
Suddenly, we arrived in cityscape, in tall buildings and narrow roads and lights. A flatbed truck had spilled open onto the road, like an egg cracking open. The yolk inside this truck was music, liveliness, pumped up volume. A travelling rave, migratory revelry. Pulsing techno throbs out of remarkable speakers. Strobe lights, black lights. Womp womp ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Cheers. Hoots. Bare feet dancing and shuffling across dirt and cracked asphalt.
The dancers had glowsticks. They had passion. If we weren’t in India, I would have assumed they were all on Ecstasy, or some futuristic party drug that the squares don’t even know about. The narcotic of the cutting edge.
Also, there was not a single woman in the crowd amassed behind the truck. Our rickshaw slid back into the night, passed the gyrating mass of men, past arms and legs cascading in dance.
Our journey stopped once more as a train crossed the tracks, some distance ahead of us. Trucks on all sides: 18 wheels in perfect unions, set upon set. Shipping containers corralled us on all sides. The train would take a while: every car around us turned off. Red brake lights flickered into black. A roving brown-out, the hissing screech of a train scraping across tracks somewhere far away.
The train station held a mass of bodies: hundreds, thousands slept in the foyer, all across the platforms. Arms and blankets draped over eyes, trying desperately to block out the powerful train station flood lights. Bihar was one of the most impoverished states in India, and it is difficult to tell the weary travellers, those waiting for long delayed shuttles, from those who needed a safe place to sleep.
We found our platform and began to wait. We were hours early, but we felt we could do with some time to reflect on what the night had given us.
A dozen young men began staring at us from around corners, from the darkest parts of the platform. They conferred several times. We grew nervous as they approached.
A host of questions, inquisitions to our nations, our purposes in India. “Why are you here? What are you doing? Where are you going?” Our nerves couldn’t help but diminish. Big, happy grins. Puppy paws: hands too big, feet too big. Moustaches, but the kind of moustaches that were carried mostly by enthusiasm, rather than any particularly verdant or robust facial hair mass. “How old are you?” we eventually asked. Teenagers—which are basically big children, which was, after all, our primary forte.
They were all in the army cadets. This was hour five of their wait at this particular train station, and we are the least boring thing currently available on the platform. Once the others realize something of interest is happening, we are surrounded by nearly all 90 of the teenaged boys, and the three teachers tasked with corralling them through India.
We talked for an hour, posed for dozens of photos, tried to bottle whatever kind of amazing, earth-shattering patience the three teachers of this enormous cadre must have been wielding. Hours after its scheduled arrival, their train hauled listlessly into the station, and dozens of boys crowded into the cars, waving from doorways as they passed.
Hours ticked by, with no sign of our train. A mocking Estimated Time of Arrival regularly skipped ahead another hour just above our heads. We began to develop hate fantasies of what we might do to the train conductor. His fate would be terrible and unimaginable, beaten only by what would befall the unknowing fools who would almost certainly have stolen our beds before we got on. We cracked our knuckles. It was 4 in the morning, and we could taste the joy of throwing these interlopers from our berths in holy justice, in our righteous, sleep-deprived fury.
The sky began to lighten, and we ran to our door. Ty threw himself aboard and headed off a wily middle-aged man preparing to clamber atop one of our reserved beds. The sun rose as we crawled onto our slats, and a strange night faded behind us on the tracks, behind us in the west.