Update Required To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.
The City of the Dead wasn't going to let me go easily. I had booked myself on the overnight train to Gwalior, an eight-hour journey across the dusty plains of gently sweating northern India, but when I turned up at the station, my train was nowhere to be seen.
When a train is seriously late in the West, the chances are there will at least be an announcement about it, if only to avoid recrimination from a bunch of furious commuters in angry suits. In India, however, the onus is on the passenger to work out what's going on; the electronic board that Varanasi Junction so proudly boasts proved to be useless, proclaiming at first that the train was still leaving at 1310 (despite it already being an hour later than that), and after a while unceremoniously dropping my train from its list.
So I spent the next few hours flitting between the Inquiry counter, the Assistance booth (the difference being that the latter is useless and simply refers you to the former) and the man with The Power, the Station Master. This irritatingly fat man – perhaps a reflection of his fat pay packet – had eight phones surrounding him on his cluttered desk, one of which was red and four of which had wind-up handles on their sides. I stood amazed as he dialled on one, picked up another, barked something down yet another, and finally realised that one of the receivers, which had been off the hook from the start, was the one he wanted. It took five minutes to unravel the spiralled cords, by which time he enlightened me with the words, 'Your train is late.' I couldn't thank him enough, the fuckwit.
Luckily I made friends with a couple of old Australian ladies who worked for the Tasmanian AIDS Council. They guarded my bags while I ran around trying to find the missing train, and when I eventually resigned myself to sitting under the speaker, hanging on every word the computerised announcer came out with (a technological innovation that is actually fairly useful), they proved to be excellent company.
'Look, there's a man asleep over there, right in the middle of the platform,' said Connie, the elder of the two and the teller of tall tales from the African continent.
'He's probably dead,' joked her companion, a veteran of Asian travel. 'After all, it's an auspicious place to die.'
'I don't think the Hindus reckon on dying in Varanasi Junction,' I pointed out, and stood up to get yet another soft drink. On my way I passed the sleeping man and stared down at his oblivious face. It took me five seconds to notice he wasn't breathing.
'Is this man dead?' I asked a well-groomed Muslim who was standing nearby, staring at the man with a look of resignation.
'Yes,' he replied, as if answering a question about the weather.
'Probably waiting for the Gwalior train,' I thought, and went for my drink.
His death surprised me; the man had only appeared there fifteen minutes before, just another person in Varanasi station lying down for a kip, and now he was stiffening up right by the Thums Up1 stall. The top pocket of his shirt was stuffed with tickets and money, none of which was missing, and people were walking past without a blink. To all intents and purposes he was asleep, just permanently.
The status quo soon shifted when someone else noticed that he wasn't breathing. Gradually a small crowd started to appear, all conjecturing on the state of the man but not lifting a finger to do anything; I was fleetingly reminded of Nepalese highways, but unfairly, it turned out, as a contingent of railway men came and carried him away, bent fingers trailing through the thin layer of dust on the hot station floor, flies scattering in their wake.
When my train finally pulled in some five-and-a-half hours late, I considered myself lucky to have escaped Varanasi with my life. It seems that even people who aren't expecting it come to Varanasi to die.
1 One of my biggest worries about returning home isn't the job market or the drudgery of the lifestyle; it's the expense of soft drinks. Due to the searing heat I have developed quite an attachment to Coke, Mirinda, Thums Up and the rest of the gang, and I sure am gonna miss 'em. Of course the weather in England isn't quite as thirst-inducing as in India, but I've got a taste for fizz and it's going to be hard to resist. I'd better get a SodaStream...