In India, the past is not a foreign country. I had no sooner arrived at Mumbai’s railway station than I was immediately made aware of this profound Indian truth.
I was back at the station I had come to at the age of five for my first train journey to Kolkata. My parents came from that part of the world, and this was an annual pilgrimage.
Poor man’s Taj: The Aurangabad Taj is an almost exact copy of the more famous Taj Mahal at Agra in the north
The superficial changes since my childhood were evident. The station is no longer named after Queen Victoria and the city is not called Bombay, the name I had grown up with. But, as I stood thinking of all the occasions I had come here clutching my father’s hand, I could see much that had not changed.
The bookstall, where I had bought comics still bore the name Wheeler, the Victorian gentleman who had set it up. And all round me Indian life was on display as it has been ever since the station was built.
On his way: Mihir boarding the Maharajas’ Express
On a bench a man slept as peacefully as if he was at home. Round the corner another leaned over a track using it as a wash basin as he cleaned his teeth. And in the very centre of the station, a group of women sorted their clothes out.
To give my English wife, Caroline, more of a feel for this journey crossing a country which is more like a continent, I had decided to take a diversion from my childhood route to Aurangabad in the south east before linking up with main train to Kolkata.
The trains of my childhood have long gone. Before, each carriage was separate. To get from one to the other you had to wait for a station and walk along the platform, as my father did when he dined in the restaurant car. Modern Indians have also done away with buffet cars.
Rail India: Mumbai’s bustling main station was a familiar sight for Mihir
So the corridors of the Shatabdi Express taking us to Aurangabad were like a bazaar with vendors shouting their offering of various Indian snacks. We had come to Aurangabad to see what the Indians call the poor man’s Taj.
It may be more than a thousand miles from the more famous Taj Mahal at Agra in the north, but it is an almost exact copy. Unlike the original Taj, which is a memorial of love by Shah Jahan to his wife, the Aurangabad Taj is a tribute by Shah Jahan’s grandson to his mother Begum Rabia Durani.
A half-hour drive away are the Ellora caves with their remarkable story of India’s religious past. The earliest date from the 5th Century and show images of Buddha, the Hindu prince who renounced his privileges and, after years of meditation, achieved nirvana.
By the time these images were carved in stone, Buddhism had replaced Hinduism as the religion of the country. However, Hinduism made a comeback and other caves at Ellora illustrate that, in particular the temple of Kailasa, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Carved from a single rock, it is the world’s largest monolithic structure and took almost 200 years to complete.
By the time it was finished in the 9th Century, Hinduism was once again the main religion in India.
About a boy: The writer aged six when he was living in India
To get the full flavour of Buddhism at its zenith, you should visit the Ajanta caves, 70 miles from Aurangabad.
Excavated between the 2nd Century BC and 6th Century AD the works of art depict various aspects of Buddha’s life.
Our hotel in Jalgaon, where we were to join the Howrah Mail to Kolkata, could have been the model for the movie The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel. My wife and I could not drink in the bar as no women were allowed. And when Caroline found a cockroach in her salad, the waiter said: ‘Oh, it must have come in when we opened the door to let you in.’
Catching the Howrah Mail, we arrived in Nagpur in that wonderful Indian evening light. The British had made this city the hub of their railway network. In my youth the train would stop for an hour while the steam engine was changed. And, as they did so, we enjoyed the hot food that a friend of my father’s who lived in the city always brought us.
But, during the many stops, I had never ventured beyond Nagpur station.
Now we were staying in the city and I could appreciate how the Indians had adapted the British legacy. The old steam engines may have been discarded but the station’s Victorian architecture was untouched, with the forecourt converted into a bazaar, making the station a most curious masala of east and west.
The station also explained why Mahatma Gandhi had built his ashram, nearby at Sevagram. He may have driven the British from India, but he also copied them. The British turned Nagpur into India’s Crewe: all trains crossing the country had to come here as it was in the dead centre. Gandhi chose it for the same reason.
Yet modern India has long discarded Gandhi’s vision of a return to preindustrial village life. As the country becomes a world economic power, Gandhi is more like a relic and Sevagram provided vivid proof of that. Here his followers have preserved the hut where he lived down to the instructions on how to use the toilet. Like Gandhi, the ashram dwellers today grow their own food and spin cotton to make thread for their clothes.
Back on the train we approached Kolkata in daylight. This time there was no mother and sisters dressing up to be received by relations, but gazing out of the window not much seemed to have changed in half a century.
The paddy fields of Bengal were as I remembered and men were still using umbrellas to escape the merciless sun. Any final thoughts of change were banished when, even before the train stopped, a porter jumped on board eager to take my bag and put it on his head. He was disappointed that I was going to pull my case on wheels.
But there was a surprise waiting for me. As we drove from the station over Howrah Bridge we could see steps leading to a bazaar. This turned out to be the Malik Ghat flower market. In a half century of visiting the city, nobody had told me about it.
Now the splendour of the flowers reminded me of India’s capacity to display beauty surrounded by stomach-churning dirt and decay.