12:30 a.m. and time to leave a crowd’s perceived security. Second class (general ticketing) cars are at the extreme ends of a train. Money buys convenience as well as comfort and safety. Guidebooks and websites warn that foreigners should avoid this class unless taking the curious or adventurous brief slumdip.
Pushing through the void occupying my heart and mind, I strategize, study patterns, and aim for the last cars to buy reaction time when the train chugs by. With every step down a dark, less and less populated platform, I abandon a known world for where I imagine the final cars will fall.
My tense face relaxes when I see her: an older woman seated next to several sleeping bodies. I ignore open space and strategically position myself beside her.
An anomaly everywhere, I know how unusual a foreigner, a woman, a foreign woman alone, is in general ticketing. But the grandmother smiles, and in a moment the sleeping bodies transform into more women, and a ten-year-old pops up with Christmas-morning delight.
The four of them encircle me, all smiles and gentle curiosity, and the classic exchange begins: we orient each other on our origin, family, hometown. A collection across three generations, they are a daughter, mother, and two grandmothers. The girl has a smattering of English, and they do not speak Hindi. The irrelevant efforts of two English-speaking young men quickly fade in comparison to the energy and communication in our circle.
The first grandmother, the lady I sat next to, is warm, wiry, and strong, smiles easily and refuses help. The second grandmother was cool, assured, silent; and the mother emanated kindness, and a quiet energy that bursts in her daughter.
Suddenly we are interrupted by the appearance of a tall Indian woman in a long flowing white glittery sari, several platforms in the distance. I have no idea where she came from or what she is doing alone, but we all stop and stare in awe. For once, I am in the staring group, although we must be too far away for her to notice.
My quarters exhausted by children, I produce my only dollar bill when the girl asks about an American coin: clean and uncreased, I have been saving it for something, and I know this energetic, expressive, optomistic girl is it. Emphasizing her intelligence and future, I offer it to her. One of the grandmothers attempts to pay for it, and I have to convince her and the child that it is really, truly, a simple gift.
I feel a bug crawling down my back, under my shirt, and three pairs of hands reach out to shake and pat it away — I know I’ve been adopted. The girl pulls out a bottle of maroon nail polish and begins painting my fingernails.
The intimidating train aggressively clacks into the station, and the ten-year-old pauses her work. She takes my unpainted hand and explains that we are going to now get on the train.
There’s a ladies’ compartment, a blessed concept of women-only space to spare us the harassment. But there is still a crowd of skirts squeezing through the door, denying physics and convention to compress that many bodies through one passage. The girl leads me to the door, but I, in a rare unaggressive moment, am lagging in the back, and throw a hand through the women and find her. I am hanging off the train, with a single foot on. Someone instructs me to try the other side, but instead I lift my pack over my head and pass it to the women inside, launch myself into the compartment, and manage to close the door behind us.
I look up, and my temporary family is standing there, smiling as I count us one-two-three-four-five-here!wow. I settle into one of the corners at the door, arranging my backpack as a seat, and the girl finishes painting my nails.
There are perhaps eight women sitting in the small hallway, face to face and knee to knee; more occupy the wider area that leads to the regular compartment. Later, we will sit and stare at the door when the train pulls into a station, all hoping that no one knocks, demanding us to open it. As the train rumbles forward again, the absence of new passengers will spark a small cheer, a feeling of great success.
The night-long train journey mixes dozing sleep and curious chatter, nighttime India sliding by the door’s window, illuminated factories and expanses of water pulling attention. The girl and I share the window space; her questions pepper an otherwise quiet car. We pull out my small map of India, I try to explain my work and why I am here, what life is like in America; she is bright, mature, confident, with a beautiful small face and an intense lack of self-awareness. I catch her staring while I sleep, but this time it doesn’t bother me. At her request, I unbind my hair, and let brown curly waves into a train’s whipping wind for the first time. Her slender fingers reach out for the foreign texture and color. A grandmother takes a deeper look at my freckled arm. So frequently an object of stares and examination, the honesty and common humanity meant that I could be studied in a natural, shared space. I allowed myself to be decorated (I have not painted my fingernails since the one or two times in high school), bangled, bindi’ed.
A crowd unloaded at a station, and, with no additional passengers, we stretched out in the hallway, feeling rich with a space shorter than my height and the width too narrow for me to sit with my legs outstretched. Cups of chai were passed through the door, distributed among the family and sent down to women deeper in the car. The chai man jogged along the moving train, tossing full cups through the open door and clutching ten rupee bills.
We settle in to sleep, and I wiggle into a spot, daughter stretched out over my legs, curling in so that a grandmother has space to my right, and sleep with my head on the mother’s knee.
Woken up in early morning light by a small cluster of women preparing to exit the train, we scramble to move, and, dazed, I hear a young English-speaking woman telling me in a startled voice that I can now move into the main compartment.
“I’m with them, actually.”
“You speak Telugu?”
“It’s a long story.”
But I see that the family has gathered their things. This is their stop, Chirala, and although the daughter has asked me repeatedly to go home with them, I turn her down. My plan is out of control, and I don’t know where Chirala is or what their names even are. How could I send my “Location Update” email to my family so that they don’t call the State Department?
The mother embraces me, touches her forehead to mine, and calls me “sister”; the grandmothers reach out goodbyes, and I hug the daughter. I wave goodbye and the mother and daughter jog with the train, waving and shouting “goodbye, sister!”
Should I have followed them? What journey is this, exactly, if I am held back by convention, refuse to step into the unknown, into true intuitive freedom? The girl gave me directions to her house, turn right at the chaat stall, etc. but I shake my head at the mental image of that failed search. I am left to wonder and regret.
Oh, India, land of extremes, where intense harassment is tempered by the communities women can build.