Sunday, 18 August 2013

Carnets. From Quetta to Tehran 1

A New Notebook – a piece of travel writing about India, is going to 

be published in an anthology later this year and it's got me thinking 

about what I've written about that journey as well as the vast 

swathes of territory I passed through that I've written nothing 


I would like a seamless and continuous narrative, but that's not the 

way it has appeared. But, heartened by Irena Vrkljan's brilliant 

non-narrative autobiography The Silk, the Shears, I feel that 

chronological order is not a necessity and so, in no particular order, 

I'd like to post what I have already written about that time.

Let's play with chronology. I'll call these pieces Carnets 

(notebooks) even though they are not, strictly speaking, as they 

were written after the event sometimes a long time afterwards. But 

then, every travel writer edits to some extent what they wrote 

down at the time (see the Dubravka Ugresic quote at the top of the 

page) as what's written then is often just the briefest of notes. And 

on this journey east, the carnets I'd made notes in, were lost. This 

forms part of the story A New Notebook that will be included in the 

anthology so I couldn't post it on the blog anyway, until after it has 

been published.

An excerpt from Quetta to Tehran has appeared in Sons of Camus 

International Writers Journal 8.

It begins on the bus going across Pakistan, from Quetta to the 

Iranian border.

Road in Balochistan  - from

From Quetta to Tehran 

Gustaf had to wake me when the bus stopped for the night. It was about three in the morning and we were due to leave again at seven. I never felt sure about any of the information we were given, it all seemed so changeable and slippery. The bus drivers went by rules which I could not follow or understand. Sometimes I doubted that there were rules at all. So I lived in a kind of limbo that swung alternately between faith and cynicism.

Gustaf's reaction to the incomprehensible was one of annoyance or contempt. But the Indian and Pakistani people simply dispersed in front of him and if he wanted to argue, they refused to meet him. They disappeared like sand in the wind and there was nothing he could do about it.

I'd travelled through India and was now beginning the long journey back to Europe, leaving behind India's profusion of colours, smells, movement, activity and human contact. To enter fully into the life of India or so I felt, meant abandoning the more rational constructs surrounding one's identity and precious individuality. It meant reacting in a different way. Any communication problems did not arise from the language, for many people speak English. Talk moves like waves of sensations drifting in the hot Indian sun. If you try to make sense of what is being said with your intellect alone, then you will find it frustrating. You have to let the country break down your inhibitions and reservations, until it enters you and claims you. If you can do that. If you can allow that to happen. India is enormously alive, frantically alive. Life in all its forms and varieties is waving, kicking, yelling, dancing, struggling to live. Everywhere is profusion. Life spills and overflows, scatters into the air like seeds on autumn winds.

Life in India is very public, streets are meeting places and very little is hidden away behind doors. Shops are open to the street or people simply take up a piece of pavement to sell their goods. Life is shared and communal and finding time and space to be on one's own is no easy achievement. Some people revelled in the abandonment of the formal and the supremacy of the senses, while others, like Gustaf, resisted this as an intrusion, and fell back on irritation and judgement.

But none of us found it easy in the stifling, crowded and claustrophobic bus that was taking us across Pakistan. People and baggage were crushed together. A couple of goats joined us later on, near the back of the bus, where we were sitting. Gustaf's reaction to the lack of space was sometimes to become annoyed, and at others, to fall into a sullen silence. He muttered words like stupid, ridiculous, absurd, and glared angrily as the bodies pressed closer and closer to us and the amount of space he liked to keep between himself and others, slowly diminished.

The Pakistani people did not react to his annoyance. They stared through it or ignored it. Gustaf's expression of ill-temper dissolved under the sheer weight of the silent disregard that met his verbal and emotional attacks. From time to time, his temper would flare up, if goat or person pressed their flanks too closely against his, then it would fade away again, among the silence. As the journey wore on, Gustaf became more and more silent and morose, sitting slumped in his seat.

 Amritsar's Golden Temple - from 

David, an American, had been my travelling companion from Amritsar, in India. The first leg of our journey had been from the Golden Temple to the station, where we took a train to Lahore, in Pakistan. The next stage was to cross Pakistan from Lahore to Quetta, a journey of a night and a day, in a packed train. As I looked around at my fellow passengers, I tried to imagine what their reasons for travelling might be. Many of them looked pursued. Others had expressions of such utter resignation that I was convinced that some higher authority was forcing them to travel. Not that it was a grim ordeal. Their faces were not hard or punished. Mostly they were soft, wide-eyed and smiling. People seemed to move in waves, they formed a total movement, a wave complete unto itself. At each station where people got off and others got on, the wave reassembled itself. Those who got off formed another wave with those on the platform (there is no such thing as a deserted station in India or Pakistan, whatever time of day or night) and they would spill out of the station to join the city waves, the street waves, with its café clusters, its traffic swarms, its market streams and rivers.

During the night, David and I took turns at lying on the wooden luggage-racks 

above the seats. It was the ultimate in luxury, to get somewhere to lie down. 

The dawn was grey. We had to change trains and there was some confusion 

about David's ticket. But we were lucky and we were allowed to board the 

next train. It was dark again, by the time we reached Quetta. 

 Quetta - from

We stayed at the China Hotel, which advertised clean, airy rooms. The hotel 

rooms were all off a central square, which was also the roof over other 

buildings. This was open to the sky so the moment you stepped out of the 

room, you were outside. We certainly could not complain about the lack of 

fresh air. It was early March, and Quetta is high up in the mountains. We 

stayed there two nights. There was no running water in the rooms but water 

was available in a brass pot left outside the door. Outside the door meant on 

the roof, and in the morning we had to break the ice over the brass pot, to 

wash with. Our ablutions were minimal.


Forest Dream Weaver said...

This all sounds very "now". Breaking ice in order to wash is something our ancestors would about.....and not in the too distant past!


dritanje said...

Yes Ruby, I'm sure that breaking ice on water is something that many people still have to do and our ancestors as you point out, would probably have found it routine in those days not long ago, before central heating. What really astonishes me when I think back to those days, is how I coped with the cold, without a warm jacket, only a mock fur waistcoat - not something I could even contemplate now!
M xx

The Solitary Walker said...

A nice piece of travel writing, Dritanje. You capture well the feeling of India, that overflowing of life, that saturation of the senses, the communality and lack of personal space. How you have to enter into it fully and unreservedly to appreciate it, uninhibitedly and unfettered by intellect.

dritanje said...

Thanks solitary walker, yes, India has a very different culture, tends to be something that westerners either love or resist and if you resist you can get very uptight and stressed, as I saw, with some people.