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Sleep disturbed by Diwali dynamite


According to Robert, our guide to Mumbai, Diwali is the celebration of the rescuing of a Queen by a God, from a King, and a monkey, in Sri Lanka. In pretty much those exact words.
 
According to Robert, a Mumbai city tour consists of 2 hours beeping and a trip to the park. In slightly fewer words.
 
Diwali is most widely known as the “Festival of Lights”, comparable in scale to Christmas in the West. But Diwali is more than just light. It’s a shared religious festival in four of India’s major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, and an absolute zero in terms of seat availability on any of India’s forty-four modes of transport. Anywhere.
 
Diwali marks the attainment of nirvana by the Jain Lord Mahavira. A nirvana that has clearly been achieved at the expense of everyone else’s within ten kilometres of even the smallest celebration. The irony that the most famous light festival in the world amounts to pure, ear-destroying noise, seems to have been missed.

Fireworks (industrial explosives) are lit from every possible surface and routinely left in the path of the hundreds of rickshaws and motorbikes that stream past. The closer these explosions, the better. I also suspect there’s a points system going on, with unknowing tourists being high on the score chart. They must have seen me a mile off (they certainly wouldn’t have heard me) and my only recollection is of a couple of half-hearted shouts and then the sight of a pre-detonation smouldering bundle, the size of a potato, sitting at my feet. Strangely, my life didn’t flash before me. It shot up my leg and flew out my pants
 
Diwali season forced us onto the last few seats out of Mumbai. Having originally planned to hit the Indian trains straight off, it was a little disappointing. Disappointing that is, until the bus started moving. Train travel captures the romantic, adventurous spirit of Indian travel. Overnight bus journeys don’t give you time to capture anything. It’s sheer white-knuckle terror for between five and twelve hours. The presence of curtains in the seated section blocks the view and allows you to sit back and relax, quietly crapping yourself to the roar of pre-take-off engine revs and squeal of hopelessly inadequate brakes. Horns have been replaced with any one of a number of simple regional melodies and headlights refitted as multicoloured disco LEDs (with about the penetrating power of an LED). It’s all great fun waiting in the bus station listening to the different jingles and watching the blues, greens and pinks flying around, but when it comes to getting the omnipresent cows off the road I’d go for an old fashioned blast on the horn any day.

Sleep is hard to come by in the seats due to the constant braking that slides you down your seat and leaves you tickling the ankles of the traveller in front. Due to a number of these uncomfortable trips we decided to splash out on a sleeper bus (the trains at this time are still jam packed with holidaymakers).
 
Comments like “This looks like a decent bus,” “Better than the last one at least,” and “Stop tickling me” are all best avoided on bus journeys. They’re unnecessary and almost always regrettable.
 
Try and imagine a dog pound. One of the typical, sorrowful ones where the dogs are kept in caged boxes about the size of rabbit hutches. Now imagine those (metal) rabbit hutches are welded onto the plastic frame of the now familiar party/terror buses. Mix in the usual blend of manic driver and Mach 3 speeds and you’ve got the recipe for a sleepless night. To describe the night as sleepless however, would be denying a few minutes kip to insomniacs the world over.
 

The ticket says “Sleeper”, but that clearly means the chap in the hammock above the driver’s head who I can only assume is paid to remain unconscious for the entirety of the journey. The bus crew have been issued with a single charge; keep the passengers awake at all times and at all costs, and they set about their task in earnest. Chasms (which are really small bumps, exacerbated by the feebleness of the bus frame) in the road, hit at full speed, send you sprawling across your hutch in all directions. I believe I spent as much time suspended in mid-air as I did on the “ground” and one particularly sudden jolt flipped me round onto my front. At which point there was a triumphant cheer from the driver’s section followed by the first few bars of Melody #5 on the horn.
 
Just when you’ve resigned yourself to going without sleep the bus comes to an abrupt halt. The driver, conductor and Sleeper all then listen in silence, content that their mission is all but complete. High fives all round when the impossible happens. The rising clatter of deep sleep snoring creeps forward from the depths of the bus, astonishing all of us and signalling failure for the crew. Heads hung in shame, except for Sleeper who’s still unconscious, all three are promptly escorted off the bus and shot, only to be replaced by a new team, more determined to succeed and even more eager to impress.
 
My face into the window, that is.

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