Post 20 – Day 10 ‘Onwards, by India Rail’ (Pt 2)

Post 20

My express train to Kolkata arrives at Gaya Junction at 11.30 am. It is scheduled to reach Kolkata about 7.30 pm that night. I board, my ticket safe within my pocket. I will be accommodated in an air-conditioned, 2nd class car. This I am assured is the travelling mode of best choice, even better than 1st class: Coach A1, seat 2, lower bunk birth. I was given a clean, carefully folded blanket. I could sleep horizontal if I liked, sitting up if I wanted too. By my bunk seat was a switch, the label below it read ‘Lift for Light’.

We depart shortly after the train’s arrival, little time being given to linger about on the platform, and quickly cleared Gaya’s urban sprawl. The passing countryside includes low hills covered in woodland, and though I thought this possibly some sort of naturally forested reserve, I could see frequent groups of villagers collecting wood. This they were cutting neatly into pieces, of a uniform short length, which they then tied into tidy bundles of picturesque presentation. Men, but mostly women, were carrying these away. Beyond a town called Koderma the woodland gave way to farmland, the farms all typical of what I have seen elsewhere, and as elsewhere the soil light brown in colour. From my window this world seems so unrelenting in its demands. I vaguely recalled the American philosopher Henry Thoreau grumbling within the pages of his ‘Walden’ about seeing young men, his fellow townsmen, whose misfortune it was to have inherited farms, barns, cattle and farming tools, for these, Thoreau reflected, “were more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labour in”. I suspected the targets of Thoreau’s arrows were gifted with a social flexibility denied the villagers I saw briefly passing.

Boys carrying serving trays move regularly through the carriage offering refreshing drinks and snacks. ‘Lay’s Original Potato Crisps’ seem a popular standby. I purchase a cheap packet of ‘chilli-ed something’, the contents of which are shaped and coloured like cashew nuts, but these travellers delicacies prove to be a form of crisp biscuit. A smartly dressed boy, no older than 16, enters the compartment. “Seat number!” he demands from me. I’m woken from my dual thoughts of Thoreau and the dream-like viewing of the landscape outside. “Seat number!”, he repeats haughtily. Though I initially am taken aback, thinking train inspectors are employed quite young by India Rail, I quickly realise he is just an arrogant little kid who wants to sit by the window, regardless of whether or not the seat is rightfully mine. The boy’s authority is quickly curbed for his mother enters behind him, and he assumes a subdued, but still supercilious, state. For a moment I think the worse of him, seeing in the precious child a future corporate oppressor of the world’s hard-working proletariat underclass, Indians and Celts included, and a despoiler of the world’s fast vanishing wild places. He’ll probably get a medical degree and want to immigrate to Australia. If he tries I’m not standing guarantor for his migrant application. In my new world order the likes of him will find resurrection and atonement as cleaners of sullage pits and sweepers of butcher’s offal. Then I realise he’s probably just a post-pubescent member of the Brahmin caste who attends a private all-boy school, so between the influence of one or the other, his haughty attitude is likely not his fault; its cause one of environment not genetics. His mother is pleasant enough though. Doesn’t say much, but she smiles a lot.

Nature calls again. The toilet is of stainless steel, of the squatting variety, and spotless. I make a photographic record for the family back at home.


I am six hours into the journey. The novelty of travel by India Rail has faded and I start to dream of being in another place. Brown parched pastureland, dry sandy creek beds, and tumbledown cottages enveloped by weeds and forgotten once-loved garden shrubs pass by. Behind some of the cottages are rows of rusting cars, ancient wagons and pieces of old farm machinery. Clumps of wild blackberry are dotted here and there, and scattered about are half-fallen farm sheds and derelict nursery greenhouses, their shade cloth half torn away. Distant hills are swathed dark green with forest, into which an occasional dirt track penetrates. Further off, plumes of thick red-brown smoke rise from a forest fire. Lonely groups of cattle, and an occasional horse, graze in far corners of otherwise empty paddocks. Men are at work repairing sections of rail track and road crossings, their vehicles parked along the easement of the rail line. Old wooden railway sleepers are thrown haphazardly onto pyres meant only for the cremation of their own kind. There are heaps of crushed grey rock, these the new ballast for the rail tracks. Into these scoop tractors, which then scurry away to wherever their loads are required. Every now and then I see recently felled trees, these cut back so that they won’t encroach upon the railway. Their bodies are left there, unused. The Indian boy, now dressed completely in white, ushers me from the patient waiting room into the surgery. He has a short-term locum position at my doctor’s general practice. The government requires of him two years posting in a regional area as a condition of visa entry. His mother lives in Harris Park, one of Sydney’s central western suburbs. She has relatives there. Lots of Indians have relatives there.

“Sir”, said the voice. “Sir, excuse me for waking you but we are soon to be at Kolkata, if you please”. I look around, but see no sign of the boy or his mother. I look out from my compartment each way along the corridor of the carriage, but the attendant has already disappeared somewhere out of view.

The train slowing proceeds through the outer districts of the city. It is dark and I see little else but a confusion of lights. We arrive only half an hour later than scheduled.

It was a long station platform. Knock down the awnings and you could land aircraft on it. I have never seen a railway station platform so long, and as it turned out I was deposited at the far end of my destination. I joined the hubbub of bustling travellers. Clatter, clatter, clatter went the little wheels of my suitcase, me pulling with my good hand on its extended chrome handles. It was like chasing that distant speck of light at the end of a tunnel that stretched endlessly away, and I found myself thinking of that passage out of one of Tolkien’s books about ‘the road going ever on, out through the door’ or something like that. Road or platform, it was no short walk, though I completed the task at a good speed, my pace never failing, the suitcase following faithfully on behind me without complaint or breakage. Spend cheap, get cheap. My investment of $50 Australian on that suitcase proved well spent. It ended up lasting the whole trip. Clatter, clatter, clatter, the suitcase continued to sing in accompaniment to my footsteps. Until at last, there by the exit gate, stood my new driver, a rectangular white placard bearing my name, held proudly aloft. They had left the ‘s’ off the end of my surname but no confusion resulted from the oversight. I had answered to several names in my life. On this night, at the end of a long platform and far from home, I wasn’t going to be precious and quibble over a missing letter.

Again I reside in a palace. It has a swimming pool the size of a lake. I hate it, and besides it’s too cold to use. I doubt the management will view with sympathy any claim I make for a refund of the pool surcharge. The hotel is located kilometres from the centre of the city, but oddly is built at the end of a dusty dirt lane. I live at the end of a dirt lane, but here I have travelled across a goodly proportion of the planet to one of the world’s most teeming cities, and I find myself in an ultra-modern, meticulously clean hotel…at the end of a dusty road. It’s all just a little too weird.

I promise my diary I will avoid any further criticisms of my tour company’s choice of fine hostelry. It is a promise I am bound to break. I sit in my room and console myself with a medium-sized bottle of ‘Kinsleys’ pure spring water, courtesy of the management.


I am not the first person from Australia, or via it, to enter Kolkata by train. One man in particular, almost 100 years to the day before me, holds my attention. Not because he was a person around which portentous happenings of history revolved, rather the contrary, he was just so obscure, and he was obscure in a quirky kind of way. His name was Edwin G. Schary, a citizen of the United States of America, and he wanted to find the holy Mahatmas of Tibet, men of sacred and spiritually unique credibility, capable of astral travel and other assorted mystical feats. In this Schary had a mission, and he travelled all the way from America to do it, and he made three attempts at his quest. All as they say ‘on the cheap’. Later he wrote his adventures down in a book, ‘In Search of the Mahatmas of Tibet’, published by Seeley, Service and Company Limited of London in 1937. I found a copy of it, a first edition one in relatively good condition at that, in an ‘op shop’.

Schary was an enthusiastic student of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, but he was a student of the self-taught and unfunded variety. He left San Francisco on the 18th December 1912, and embarked March the following year from Honolulu, third class, for Sydney. In Sydney Schary visited an employment agency, where for a modest fee he was able to secure work as a ‘flunkey’, as he termed it, at a resort on Sydney’s gentrified North Shore. Being in charge of cleaning lavatories did not excite him so after several weeks Schary found alternate service in a “tiny hamlet named Chatswood”, working in a roadhouse and bar situated on the state highway; probably his Americanised description of a ‘pub’. Whilst there he lived in what was described as an outhouse that was once a chicken coop. Gathering renewed funds together he sets sail to India via Melbourne, Adelaide, Freemantle, and Colombo in Sri Lanka. Landing in southern India he travels by rail to Madras, now Chennai, on the east coast of India. Here he undertakes a bicycle ride to the village of Adyar, not far away, hoping there to meet a certain Mrs Besant who is the founder and director of an institution tasked with the dissemination of books and knowledge regarding the more mystical aspects of Hinduism. Apparently he is of insufficient importance for Mrs Besant to offer meeting him, and so after a futile wait of some days Schary continues on to Calcutta, present day Kolkata. Before leaving Madras, and being impoverished again, he is given five rupees by the head of the Methodist Mission there, a further five rupees by the head of the American Standard Oil Company, and an additional equal sum by the American Consul. Fifteen rupees all up, rupees then being of a value higher than they are now, and at that time with the spending power of one American dollar. Finances suitably renewed he departs third class steerage by train to Calcutta.

Schary arrives at Howrah Station and finds accommodation in a boarding house. He remarks, “One thing that forcibly impressed me about Indian communities was the absence of litter of any kind on the roads or streets”, this being an age pre-dating the invention of throw-away packaging. He is told of a huge steel mill nearing completion 150 miles west of Calcutta and that the plant is being constructed for a large firm of wealthy Parsees, named Tata who lived in Bombay, now Mumbai. Their forebears were Persian adherents to Zoroastrianism, and owing to persecution by Muslims had fled to India in the 7th to 8th Century CE. This could be an interesting sideline to the main thrust of my story, but suffice to say that on this, the first of his three journeys in India, Schary eventually travels through Varanasi, New Delhi, Lahore, and onwards to Srinagar in Kashmir. This was in 1914, and by this time Schary has acquired skill in speaking Hindustani. On reaching Srinagar he was penniless yet again, but after some further adventure gains employ as a Principal of a Hindu school, then as an overseer at a silk mill. However, his intention remains that of seeking the sacred Mahatmas. In Srinagar he signed a promise to the British authorities that he would not cross the Tibetan border, but pushes on towards Ladakh regardless. He reaches the town of Leh and crosses the 17,500 foot (5,334 m) high Tunga La Pass. But the harsh conditions of the terrain, the strain of travel alone at high altitude, and the poor health of his pack horse force Schary to turn about in failure. He returns to California in September 1915.

In March 1917 Schary sets out for India on his second attempt at locating the Mahatmas of Tibet. He works for a time as a supervisor at a Malayan rubber plantation, then proceeds to Calcutta where he secures work with the Ludlow Manufacturing Syndicate of Boston, Massachusetts. This company is building a jute mill 27 kilometres below the city on the banks of the River Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges. From there he travels to Kashmir and seeks an official permit from the British Residency to enter Tibet. He misrepresents his identity and again promises not to enter Tibet. Never one to strictly honour such promises, for after all the British hold no control over that country, he journeys through Tibet finding route via Demchok, Laktsang and Sarka. During this journey across the high Tibetan Plateau he is told by Tibetan officials to return to Ladakh. Feigning agreement, in predictable Schary style he simply continues on his original course. By various subterfuges, acts of kindness from those he meets along the way, and with lots of luck, he survives the perilous trek. Forced to detour south into Nepal he then turns north before reaching Kathmandu and returns to Tibet passing through Palgu Tso and Janglache. He does not journey towards Lhasa, instead arriving unwashed and lice-ridden at the little British outpost at Gyantze north of Bhutan. By this time the ‘Great War’ in Europe, World War I, is over. Missing that conflict, he courted death in this environment at the top of the world instead. At Gyantze Schary is directed to report to the British Resident of State in Gantok, the capital of Sikkim, at that time a British protectorate. There Schary is questioned regarding his entering Tibet without permission, but by relating various tales of derring-do, ‘daring to do’, avoids serious detention. He re-enters India at Darjeeling, journeys on to Calcutta and returns to California in 1919.

In September of the same year he books a First Class ticket on a Japanese steamer bound for Shanghai, China. During the voyage Schary meditates for long periods in an attempt to acquire a state of well-being and purity of mind worthy of being a disciple of Mahatmas. He leaves Shanghai in January 1920, but Schary does not enter India through Calcutta as he wanted to avoid passport officials; suspecting his untrustworthy reputation has preceded him. He is offered work as a Forest Ranger in the Ranchi Hills, then in the interior of Bengal. The salary is 750 English pounds, at that time equivalent to 1000 rupees a month, a tremendous amount of money to Schary. By March he is in the vicinity of Rawalpindi in the northern Punjab, and is told not to enter Srinagar as the British officials there could force him to return to India. Under a false name he seeks an entry permit to allow him to proceed to Ladakh as a tourist. As the British officials in Srinagar were newly appointed he hoped he would not be recognized. His attempts at subterfuge are realized by the new British Resident, and he is told he is to be given three days to leave Kashmir and return to India.

Undaunted Schary tries to disguise himself as a Kashmiri ‘coolie’ so as to continue into Tibet. He is caught out by a diligent Hindu police officer and is sent back to Srinigar under guard. There he is jailed, though comfortably, for a servant of the Governor of Kashmir supplies his jail cell with a scattering of Oriental rugs, a small European bed, a washstand, two chairs and a bowl of flowers. Status as a minor celebrity aside Schary remains in jail for 45 days as he awaits the outcome of his case. The British found little comedy in his actions, and his argument that he was not a British subject and that Tibet was not a territory of the Crown, availed his case not the least, well-grounded in fact as one might have expected it to be. So it was that in July 1920 Edwin Schary is escorted by a Kashmir Superintendent of Police back to Calcutta. I suspected he knew that city rather well by this time.

The indomitable Mr Schary is not so easily put off, and he returns to India on one more occasion, his fourth, in his attempt to locate the sacred Mahatmas. Schary works for several months in Calcutta, but this time is overcome by illness and is finally forced to return to San Francisco. I have but barely indicated his adventures here, but though they were incredible and many, as ‘In Search of the Mahatmas of Tibet’ relates, Schary does not acknowledge finding those whom he had sought, at least not in the physical sense. However, he does chronicle a number of particular successes. Among these Schary gets to live as a guest with nomads (wouldn’t we all), he found a priest who did a clever ‘disappearing coin’ trick, he saw a strange and inexplicable luminous disc rise and fall near the sacred Tibetan mountain of Kailas Parbat, and he received the ‘glad eye’, as he put it, from a young Tibetan woman but was “too worn out to be interested”. I’m on a road trip too, so I have a little insight into how he might have been feeling. Interestingly, he did get to enter a cave where a holy Mahatma was said to live, but entering in the hope of finding the gentleman home, all Schary found was an empty cave. He stayed in that cave for three days, and there experienced troubled visions and dark forebodings. Schary was quite emaciated at the time, and seems to have forgotten one of the several attributes of such holy men, that they could become invisible to the untrained eye. So who knows what may have been there in that cave in Schary’s unwitting company. You just never know in the world of metaphysics.

It is also unfortunate that Schary was denied his desire to meet with Mrs Besant, for she was an interesting lady indeed. With shared interests, they might have gotten on quite well. Born Annie Wood Besant, 1847-1933, she was a British social reformer and a member of The Theosophical Society; Theosophy being a movement following Hindu and Buddhist teachings and seeking universal brotherhood. Annie Besant was a leader among Europeans in reviving and disseminating Hindu religion and culture. The Theosophy movement partly resembled spiritualism, which was then in vogue, and had the serious purpose of elevating the materialistic and the scientific spirit of the West through preaching the mysticism and spirituality of Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact I recall my paternal grandfather was a follower of it, sadly his books on the subject were consigned to the rubbish bin before I could rescue them. Mrs Besant served as the president of the Theosophical Society from 1907 until her death. She lived at the society’s headquarters in Adyar, learned Sanskrit and founded a Hindu College in Varanasi. During World War I Mrs Besant became a champion of Indian home rule, and she was the 5th and last British president of the Indian National Congress. In the terrible disorders in the Punjab in 1919, resulting in the deaths of many Indians, she supported the imperial policy of repression, the British fearing another ‘Mutiny’ of 1857. Her action alienated Indians, who then turned to Mohandas Gandhi for leadership. In the 1920’s Annie Besant toured Western nations with a young Hindu, Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she regarded as the new Messiah.

I believe Edwin Schary departed this Earth prior to my birth, but I enjoyed the whimsical thought that maybe somewhere here in Kolkata, or possibly in the future as I drive along the old Pacific Highway through the suburb of Chatswood, I will pass his ghost and he will wave in recognition. And that finally, though in a way Schary did not anticipate, I hope he found his holy Mahatmas of Tibet after all. Shame, however, about the young woman.


Above my hotel bed hangs a modest-sized artwork in the Cubist style. It is a print. Tomorrow I will go in search of tigers.

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