Driving through the thick fog, it’s as if the universe has shrunk down to just this. The road disappears five metres in front of our eyes. Beyond that, there could be anything … sea monsters, a fairy castle, the god Ganesha reclining on a cupcake. You would never know.
It’s six am and the sun’s not up – or at least not visible through this unseasonable fog. The mist ridicules the headlights, diffusing the puny beam so that they’re less than useless. Everything is invisible. Everything is white. This must be what the world looks like through cataracts.
Painted trucks loom up at us without warning, their dark windows like eye sockets in a metal skull. The van swerves to miss them, and a cacophony of horns throws blame onto the road as we pass by the skins of our teeth.
As the hour wears on, the fog stays stubbornly in place, though the world starts to warm up inside it. Bicycles begin to appear, and women walking along the edge of the road, and bullock carts stacked high with bags of wheat. Every now and again a fire flickers through the veil, but it swallows the smoke without trace.
I crossed the border from Nepal this morning. The immigration office wasn’t open and the touts hadn’t started to mill around the boom gate. A man with a scarf tied around his head took my passport, and checked every letter and number on the form I’d filled out against it. He carefully stamped the page and in ten minutes I was across the border and instantly into India.
I’d thought Nepal was quite like India, right up until that moment. But on stepping through the change was so palpable that I breathed it in. India has its own smell, its garbage is an art form and the way the shops are arranged is just so …. quintessentially Indian. In the space of a ten-metre parentheses, the whole world tilted slightly on its axis, I left Nepal behind, and India came sharply into focus.
It’s 300 kilometres to Varanasi, India’s holiest city, and it will take me ten hours in this car to get there. We’ll join another four lanes of traffic on this one-lane goat track that is the major highway, and we’ll go at an average 30km per hour while we avoid disaster on the pitted, pockmarked road. In some places there’ll be cows asleep in the middle, curled up like cats. There’ll be vegetable markets for miles, all selling the same combination of apples and bananas, or cauliflower, potatoes and eggplant. I’ll want to buy one of the hand-woven reed baskets with its pretty patterns of pink and green on the inside, but we won’t stop for that, not for love nor money.
And every time my driver, Mr Yadev, swerves to avoid a dog, or manfully passes a motor bike, or leans on his horn, or tops out the speedometer at the grand total of 43 km per hour; he’ll give a small, burbling wet belch of quiet satisfaction; all the way there.