After four days of living in train stations, airports, sleeping in luggage racks entwined with sudra labourers from deepest Bihar, living on guavas with salt and chilli pepper, popping hypnotics at an alarming rate which I don't realise until I see the empty cards in the side pocket of my bag - because I feel a nagging sense of unwellness, an unhealthy sweat, and I have left behind someone I love - and because of course Benares has its silks, and its temples, and its ancient pilgrims waiting to die by the sacred river, and of course it still has its prostitutes - and its powder unlimited too, and I am weak and sweating out opiate metabolites. Maybe to you in a holy city you must be holy, but here everything you do is holy by definition.
After a tour of the alien south, I am finally back in Hindi country, and it feels good to know that even after ten years, I am no longer completely an uncomprehending stranger in a strange land - fellow travellers either undeservedly congratulate or rib me for my lurching heavily urdu-leaning hindi. By the second day in the train I feel the air getting hot heavy and wet with the air of the Arabian sea and know Bombay is near. Arrive, instantly engulfed and swallowed by the lunatic city, a giant pulsating pululating creature, a local train ride is like a particularly harsh full-body massage, and here there is the new generation too, sultry Indian college girls and neon lights of bars and clubs winking seductively.
Half-sleep, wake intermittently from disquieting dreams, in an airport that is too freezingly air-conditioned. And then it is into the tunnel of steel, first past the sandbagged emplacements outside the departure terminals and then surrender to the processing and rendering and petty humiliation we are subjected to these days for the privilege to fly. The plane is full of dark Dravidians speaking south Indian languages going to their servile jobs in the Gulf, the occasional Pakistani, an English convert to Islam.
In Muscat, Oman, the banking system does not seem to realise that all of my accounts are overdrawn to the maximum and put me well in credit, and I wonder whether I should take advantage and empty the duty-free shop. I settle for the traditional cigarettes and tobacco - I am trying to give up, but it is all at ten per cent of the UK price. Drug dealers and capitalists.
Mystified, I need to find an internet to contact my banks and see what this is all about. There is only one public one, in the business centre of the luxury Plaza VIP waiting room, so I charge 10 Omani Ryals to my abused Visa card for three hours of luxury - hot shower, wash my shirt collar, shave, breakfast like a king, Red Label unlimited. Very good value.
Earlier, I sat in the waiting room cafe sipping tepid tea and wondering at the number of people in military-type jackets with corporals' or sergeants' stripes on their sleeves. Why not full shoulder-boards with generals' or staff officers' tabs, I wondered? And instead of buying that awfully interesting looking Robert Fish (Fisk?) book, something about the great war for civilisation and the conquest of the Middle East, about decades of atrocity and injustice across the Middle East and Central Asia, decide to finish James Joyce's Ulysses on the last leg of the journey back to freezing London.
Stories from recent months hopefully follow soon.