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India by Train

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Life in Sleeper Class (a.k.a. O Christmas Chai)

December.

For the twenty-five-hour journey from Delhi to Kolkata, I promise myself the upper side berth, a precious commodity with a guaranteed window seat during the day and a slight privacy advantage at night. I’ll watch the Delhi plains turn into Bengali woodland and think deep thoughts.

I’ve just settled into my forward-facing window spot when a young woman arrives with a baby and a giant suitcase. It’s a movie moment: her hopeful look and my hopefully-hidden hope that she is just passing through before adjusting to make space for her on the bench.

Maybe she does have a seat somewhere, and is waiting for everyone to settle in first.

My Hindi is still terrible but we can communicate without much language, giving the general idea of who we are, where we come from, why we are on this particular train in early December and subjecting ourselves to long distance land travel. The bench is not quite six feet long; I’m on the end, then the baby, then her, then a man who appears to be in his thirties and not at all traveling with them.

The first round of chai begins, and biscuits come out (I can’t remember who starts that, but we pass around different packages to dip into the hot milk tea). The rest of the people in our open-air section are men, but they seem to be respectful, even smiling and waving at the baby (who is able to sit up but not walk, so how old would she be?).

The train has officially been moving for a bit now, and that’s that. The young mother is one of those in-between passengers who have a ticket but no seat assignment. I pull my bags from beneath the lower side berth where we’ve been sitting and one of our “cabin” (non-enclosed section of eight berths) mates lifts my backpack up onto the upper one. We wedge the young woman’s suitcase under the berth, and it’s official. I leave my shoes below with her suitcase and climb, stepping from a bunk-bed-bar to another berth, into my side berth. We pass snacks up down across between. I make silly faces at the baby and the mother laughs. Then more chai and biscuits.

To some, it might look like she took advantage of us by joining our compartment-area. But to have that thought means that you come from a particular cultural background. In the West, your ticket is your ticket, and you sit in your spot, and anyone who does otherwise is being rude. In India, sure, there are assigned seats, but that’s only a guideline and, in reality, if there’s a person who needs somewhere to sit — they sit, and everyone makes space. There isn’t the same sense of property and privacy.

Marie, the best of the India foreign travelers, arrives: a slender woman in a salwar kameez taking one of the upper berths on the other side of our compartment-area. I love her frank cheerful attitude; her stories and persona brighten our space.

This is, of course, a twenty-five (in reality, twenty-seven) hour train journey, so the cycle repeats itself. Sharing stories, offering food, the repetitive sounds of chai-wallahs moving down the aisle. Marie makes noises and smiles at the child. At one point, the mother steps away, leaving us to monitor her baby for a few minutes, and I ponder community.

Night settles in and activity in the train fades into light blankets spread under stretched-out legs. Someone lightly snores on the floor space between the opposing berths; it’s as if there’s been a massive sleepover party on wheels. A baby in an adjacent compartment-area cries, and I think about how we have the best, quietest baby on the train.

Rounds of good mornings, and then breakfast. I’m reading, writing, thinking in my little cubicle, trying to not remember how long I’ve been on the train.

We have another round of chai, we’ve been taking turns to pay like a round of beer in a pub, and Marie succeeds in getting everyone in our compartment-area to take a cup. “Do you want chai, take a chai, it’s Christmas, o Christmas chai” — and everyone smiles and laughs and dunks biscuits.

When people from different cultures interact with open minds, their ways of living can rub off on each other. I am still a little too loud, oh American self, a little more friendly than a woman in India would be, but, like extra people on the train, that is accommodated. And, in turn, we foreign travelers pick up the head wobble, the chai rhythms, and the food-pushing.

Happy Life.

[I set the blog aside to work on other projects, but am taking it up again after the encouragement of a good friend. Thanks, Jenn.]

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Questions

Two young boys clamber onto the upper berth across from mine. I glance at their eager faces. Weary but awake, I’m hand-writing blog posts into a lined school notebook purchased in an effort to catch up on my lagging storytelling. They lie on their sides, heads propped in hands, and the usual questions to begin: where I am from, where I am going. But childhood’s curiosity extends it more and more and…

what is your birthday? sign? when you were small what sports did you play?

The boys are Rithik, seven, and Kamal, nine, from Mumbai but traveling with their parents for a holiday. I flip every question back onto them; it’s a flurry of information moving along a train roof hurtling across India.

do you like to read books? the cinema? what is your favorite actor? your father’s name? mother’s?

The notebook rests in my lap, abandoned, and I beam at the two happy bright utterly interested faces, taking every question seriously. Because questions are very important when you’re seven.

what do you think of india? what time do you get up in the morning?

This goes on for a very long time. The older one loses interest, but the younger pauses to think of questions, reaching into every corner of his brain to see if there’s something left that he might want to know. When I think I may have exhausted his mind, he picks up a new line. I fool him briefly, pretending to be asleep (these are only a sliver of the questions, it went on all afternoon).

Bridget? Bridget? …Bridget? Bridget? Bridget?

what is your city like? do you have big buildings? does everyone in america have brown hair? 

I take out my little traveling photo album, which draws the elder back up the ladder to join his brother. They study my family’s faces, tracing their fingers over the wrinkling plastic, and flip the pages until they discover the Chicago postcards. I try to explain America’s visual diversity –

there are people with orange hair??

Rithik uses a page of my notebook paper to tell my fortune, something almost exactly like MASH, the American count-to-eliminate-your-options game I played as a kid. The future looks good, although I can’t quite tell what it is.

Children everywhere, if not the same, have a lot in common.

A Slow Advance

November 26th.

I’ve been warned about train delays in India, but it had never happened to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. My departures and arrivals are carefully timed, avoiding suspect late night hours. This worked well, until my train from Delhi to Bodhgaya was delayed: instead of leaving at a completely manageable 10 PM, its departure time was pushed forward to 4:30 AM. Jyoti and I stood at Platform 1, staring at the screen. My hope that it was a mistake ached in my body as I wondered how to spend the night at the train station.

But the answer was simple, I needn’t have worried. We returned to Majnu Ka Tilla where I was able to rest for a few hours in Jyoti’s room, and arranged a lift to the station via the guest house staff. Three or four guys standing around the desk, chatting in Hindi to each other and Jyoti. Everyone gets involved, a classic experience. In the early hours of the morning, I woke the man sleeping in the lobby — a staple in any guest house — who called the driver again.

The train arrives in the fading darkness, as promised, but we will stop and start, inching our way towards Bihar. I suspect that we have been shuffled out of the way, an odd one out of sync with the rest who must wait for everyone else to pass by so as not to disrupt the others. Slowly slowly, we ease east.

I’m not well-stocked, and ration out what food I have if we have a train-apocalypse where our pace slows to walking. A good-natured man in our cabin space points it out, and I make a quick joke about perpetual train rides. And the train passes its original arrival time, then threatens to ignore its proposed one as well. Night settles in.

We’re moving, but not that much. Railroad tracks stretching into the black hole of Indian delays, always progressing never arriving. I am afraid to sleep, lest I miss my stop. I sit, awake, by the window, waiting blankly.

My ticket is for the middle bunk, which drops down to form the seat-back during the day. The men around me suggest that I rest, and I explain that I am afraid of oversleeping. I look up into their genuine smiles, their involvement in my well-being. They explain that I will be woken, that no one will let me miss the stop. So we convert our cabin area into bunks, and all stretch out to sleep.

When the conductor comes, he fusses over my ticket. “This ticket is for yesterday. You must buy a new one.” Appalled that he could blame me for his own train being delayed so long that we are into the next day, I splutter a protest, but it is drowned out by the chorus of voices around me, my cabin-mates charging in with Hindi in my defense. The conversation leaves my comprehension, but the conductor leaves me alone. I am told that he was confused. I suspect that he had been attempting a scam, but I keep the thought to myself.

As promised, someone wakes me when we are nearing Gaya, and I collect myself. It’s an awkward early hour, nearly 4 AM on the following day, but it is much better than arriving at midnight. I had been anxious over the anticipated intensity of the coming days. Now I was all patience, and fatigue.

Another white female foreigner had arrived sometime in the night, and is sleeping on the bunk below mine. Someone wakes her up as well, in case she is going to Gaya as well. Confused and in a daze, she explains that she is not. Those of us who are leaving wait in the aisle, quietly but warmly, another little community alive for a moment because of a train.

I want to keep the happy memory, as I make my way through the crowded (despite the hour) station, but I begin to wonder if I was treated so well because of my race. Would a young Indian woman traveling alone through the night receive such kindness? No one is simple, I would not deny them their humanity; but after this much time in India, I need to acknowledge that my skin color and foreign status opens doors and generates useful attention.

I’ll wait out the night, go to Bodhgaya by auto rickshaw at sunrise. Normally I would sit on the floor with everyone else, somewhere near a cluster of women. But the hour and the severe economic difference in Bihar, the poorest state in India, amps up the spotlight, and I slip into the first class waiting room, my face granting me instant permission.

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