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India: Brief encounter

The sheer unpredictability of travel is part of its enduring charm, and the best adventures are surely those that gift us tales to tell. In this part of our Travellers' Tales series, we head to India

India: Brief encounter
Passengers travelling on the Kalka-Shimla railway. Image: Alamy

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At the beginning of my train ride from New Delhi to Kalka all I see of Professor JPS Sawhney is the tip of a turban and an arm shooting out to a cup of tea. This is because he’s obscured by his enormous neighbour, Mr Rakesh Wason, a “wholesaler of ladies’ fashion” from Chandigarh, who is blessed with a prodigious belly wrapped in a tent-like lime-green shirt.

It’s only after Mr Wason and I have been talking for a while about the state of the Indian economy (“a bit up-down, up-down”), cricket, his love of Virgin Trains’ first-class service in the UK, and his fondness for Madame Tussauds (“The Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Obama, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Ghandi: very good!”), that the Professor makes himself known.

The turban beyond Mr Wason’s belly pokes outwards, like a hermit crab emerging from a slumber. It’s attached to the head of a thin, bearded man with a broad smile. He gives me his card. He’s a cardiologist from Delhi, and, like Mr Wason, he’s a rail enthusiast.

“Trains!” he says, leaning forward. “Switzerland has the best trains. Stockholm to Oslo: this was also a very good experience. Picturesque, beautiful place. US: trains are not very good; the quality is poor. In India, there is the Palace on Wheels, you know.”

Professor Sawhney and Mr Wason say that they always travel first class when they can on Indian trains, which is what we’re taking to Kalka. “I was going to fly this time, but there were no seats,” says Professor Sawhney. “So I called a patient at the Ministry of Railways. I was then confirmed a ticket.”

Mr Wason had been in a similar situation: “I had to pay double. Today is my wife’s birthday, so I had to go urgently.”

Professor Sawhney then surprises me: “The Dalai Lama is my patient,” he says. Shimla, my destination after Kalka, is close to Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile from Tibet, and I’m planning to see the mountaintop town.

“I was with him for six days as he had a problem: one of his arteries was blocked,” the Professor says. “It was a wonderful experience. He gave me a book with his autograph.”

The Professor had provided the Dalai Lama with advice on his diet, including a recommendation to eat more bananas, with which the spiritual leader was particularly taken. “We had many talks about his teachings — truthfulness, simplicity, honesty, all those things.”

He pauses and retreats behind Mr Wason’s belly for a sip of tea as though to contemplate what the Dalai Lama had to say.

After a few moments, Professor Sawhney returns and talk moves on to health matters. “Heart disease is the biggest killer of mankind. For the Indian population, the big problem is the lack of exercise. And we are overeating, like the Americans.”

Mr Wason keeps quiet during this exchange — he really is extremely large.

“We can live off about one quarter of what we eat. We can eat milk, meat and eggs but also take lots of fruit, vegetables and nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashew, pistachio. Soya milk, it’s good. And don’t use too much oil when cooking food.”

Professor Sawhney gives me the telephone number of the Dalai Lama’s main doctor, whom he believes will be able to arrange an audience with the spiritual leader (I’m intending to travel by vehicle from Shimla to Dharamshala). Then Professor Sawhney takes my pulse using a device attached to his mobile phone. I’m running at 71 beats a minute. He makes another calculation, murmurs and makes a clicking sound.

“No problems for you. No problems,” he says and, satisfied that I’m not about to drop dead, retreats once more behind his neighbour.

I appear to have been given the all-clear by the Dalai Lama’s cardiologist. You don’t get that on the 8:23 from Reading.

Read more of the Travellers’ Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)