The Road to Omkareshwar

The highways of India are teeming with pedestrians, cows, bicycles, water buffalo, motorcycles, rickshaws, cars, buses, and trucks, in roughly equal proportions. Their speeds are unavoidably disparate, and so passing is a constant. Here’s another thing: right-of-way in India is given to whichever vehicle is bigger, unlike in America where right-of-way is given to whichever vehicle is driving on the correct side of the road. Put this all together and you’ll understand why my bus, faster than any vehicle except for the car and larger than any vehicle except for the truck, spent half the trip barreling down the wrong side of the highway while oncoming motorcycles swerved to avoid us. I had made the mistake of sitting in the front seat, and was dumbstruck.

Woman, OmkareshwarI was traveling north, heading out of Maharashtra towards Madhya Pradesh, towards the wide plain of the Ganges. My destination was Omkareshwar, a Hindu pilgrimage site, a small island in the middle of an extremely holy river. The island reputedly has the shape of the letter Om: this is symbol on the door of every yoga studio you’ve ever walked by. Thus the name Omkareshwar, and the religious significance. I have since seen satellite photos and they’re not convincing.

In Ajanta I had asked for directions in triplicate, as is the prudent traveler’s custom, and, astoundingly, all three sources gave me the same general guideline: a bus from Ajanta to Jalgaon, a train from Jalgaon to Khandwa, and Omkareshwar is a stop on the bus from Khandwa to Indore. This is about as simple as it gets in a country like India, so I was full of confidence as I rode north.

The old lady in my train compartment was carrying on jovially, hopping from foot to foot with her hands in the air, singing to herself, spinning slowly. From time to time she’d try to get one of the rest of us to join in her dance. Yes, you! She would periodically gesture to me. I want you to hop around with me and spin slowly! Was this behavior somehow explicable? Was there some context that I needed to understand before passing judgment on this woman? I looked around the compartment to gauge the reaction of my cabin-mates but they were inscrutable.

The impatient traveler may be excused if he concludes that India is what happens when there are no rules. At times it does seem that the townsfolk have all lost their moorings, given our set of prejudices. Like, from the Western perspective, seeing someone piss on the floor is a pretty reliable indicator that all hell has just broken loose. In Ajanta alone I had already seen two different Indian boys pants-less in public, pissing carefree. But despite the livestock in the street, the Wild-Wild-West gunslinging aesthetic of the highways, the sprawling pantheon of gods, the bedlam crammed into every square foot of sidewalk, despite the old ladies hocking tremendous loogies on the street, the communist mobs parading through the train stations, despite all this, there are rules, and to understand India is to understand the delicate rules that bind this crazy society together.

Temple, OmkareshwarI traveled, I read, I bore witness the best I could, but understanding for me was a hopeless dream. Every new experience brought ten more questions. I find it remarkable that some Americans go to India searching for answers.

A stooped old lady moved lowly through our compartment, staying close to the floor, trying to beg a coin off the passengers. She noticed me as she passed by, a foreigner, this Westerner wearing the wrong clothes, the wrong face, sitting in the wrong context, and asked for a coin in the same heartbreaking vernacular she had used on my neighbor. I apologized and gave her nothing, even though the three hundred dollars in my belt was her year’s sustenance.

By then I had grown used to the teenagers with their decent clothes and their dozen phrases of decent English trying to cadge ten rupees or, maddeningly, one pen. I was even inured to the beggar women, wailing child in arm, who would latch on to my flash of white skin and slope towards me, speaking one word of English. Please. Please! Please, shreiked, or plaintive, or yes, or mister, but always with a different quality than the words to the man before me, or after me. Exploiting their one word like an overmined ore, because I was an outsider. Once objectified I become impervious.

The beggar on the train shrugged past me as she shrugged past my neighbor, no special accommodation for the foreigner, no resources to exploit. This was what broke my heart. Still, I gave nothing.

Beggar, OmkareshwarThe chai-wallahs, hopping on one stop and off the next. The chai is safe because it is hot, mostly safe anyways, as safe as anything, and delicious. Three rupees for a sugary chai in a baked mud cup. You drink the chai and throw the cup onto the tracks, where it becomes dirt. Technology is making its way to India, and sometimes the chai-wallahs pour into a paper cup instead. You drink the chai and throw the cup onto the tracks, where it does not become dirt. Trash-obliviousness is evident across the countryside and always provokes a crisis within the culturally sensitive traveler. After all, non-biodegradable containers are one of the great gifts of my culture to India. Am I allowed to I chide the Indians for not using them right?

I sipped tea while looking out the train window. It had not escaped my attention that I hadn’t seen a single Latin letter on a station wall since Jalgaon. I had been in India for a few weeks and I could recognize about twenty characters of the Devanagari script, including K, N, and D. Enough, I figured, to reliably buy me Khandwa, but I was a slow reader and the train never stopped for too long.

Eventually I recognized a K on a yellow sign on a station wall. K… A… N… is that a ‘D’ or a ‘T’?… The train lurched and started rolling. I turned to the guy next to me. Khandwa? I asked, pointing out the window nervously. He gave me the classic head waggle, which can mean one of exactly four different things: “yes”, “no”, “I don’t know”, or “I don’t understand”. I took it to mean “yes”, and I grabbed my backpack with both hands and—the crazy dancing woman seemed to find this hilarious—started racing towards the door. The train was picking up speed. I turned the corner and jumped out.

I knew by the time my feet hit the platform that I was not in Khandwa. So here I am: my two hands are gripping the frame of my backpack, the train is steaming off behind me, and I am looking at a dumbfounded crowd of Indians. They are saying to themselves, “now here is a man who does not speak Marathi”. I am in the wrong place, and the locals recognize this because I have not yet lifted my feet, nor taken my hands off of the metal frame of my backpack. The people on the platform are also frozen, staring back at me. I am staring at them, they are staring at me. I am gripping the frame of my backpack with two hands. The train has just pulled out of sight.

Dinner Preparations, OmkareshwarI broke the tension by intoning the only word on my tongue. I said, “Khandwa?” The locals got a pretty good chuckle out of this one. They ushered me to the ticket counter and soon enough I was back on another train. As I was pulling out of the station I revisited the yellow sign. “K… A… N… T… long ‘E’… N. Kanteen. Canteen.” Immediately below the sign was, quite clearly, the station canteen.

The highway out of Khandwa evolved from the kind of road where at least one wheel of the bus was in a pothole at any given moment to the kind of road where the word “pothole” would be misleading because of the implication of some flat surface that might exist in contradistinction to the hole. Sometimes on rides like this it took all my concentration not to get sick; sometimes I found myself shaken giddy, thinking, “India!”

My focus was again on the passing Devanagari. I was looking for some sign of Omkareshwar, any word that started with the letter Om. I wasn’t too worried: this bus was equipped with a conductor as well as a driver, and I was pretty sure they were sympathetic to my situation. After a day of practice I was now able to pronounce the word Omkareshwar well enough to be understood on the first try.

An hour north of Khandwa the bus ground to a halt. The conductor grabbed my bag, pointed at me, and then pointed out the door forcefully, with a you’re-banished-from-the-land panache. I was grateful for his confidence—I certainly hadn’t seen any Om symbols myself—and disembarked.

Vegetable Dyes, OmkareshwarIt was not Omkareshwar. This was the side of a highway. Motorcycles, water buffalo, rickshaws sped or sauntered by. I looked back the way I came, and it did not look promising. I craned my head around and looked down the highway at the back of the receding bus, and barren landscape.

It only took a few more seconds to spot the milling locals, beckoning me onto a bus that was sitting on the other side of the highway, and when I boarded I was met with the combined stare of forty Hindu pilgrims, dressed up in full pilgrimage regalia. Big beards, turbans, colorful robes. Forehead paint. Devotees of Shiva carry iron tridents on special occasions? They stared at me with an air of, “now, get a load of this funny-looking guy.” And that was the moment I knew I would reach my destination.

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