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.
[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.]
Illiciting intense emotions, the negative always supercedes the positive in my memory, pulling raw at the mind and drawing up the darker sides of humanity. The truth is that every challenging story from India was leveraged by a deep positive, as every harassing man was tempered by the encircling protection of women. India, in my experience, is a land of extremes: an ancient civilization embodying the human story. One of the oldest living cities on earth coexisting with progressive technology, rampant cruelty and indifference matched by truly genuine human connection and potential. To stand outside in judgment is dangerous, indicative of a divided perspective on the global community. If Earth were a single organism, then India marks the development of its human aspect. To see its violence and slf-destruction is to contemplate the dangers that humanity lays against itself — our indifference towards the earth, to our slow and unnecessarily-advancing death. To witness the fear, the seeming social decline, the brutality, must be tempered by realizing that aggression is learned, gender dynamics constructed and perpetuated, economic strife the result of unhealthy economic structures. To abandon it is to forget our united desire for life. The privileged, local or global, can choose to withdraw entirely or to engage, learn, grow, and empower others.
To travel there is to be challenged into becoming the best and worst of yourself, to crack open and gaze into the misery and ecstasy of what it means to be human. It is, perhaps, an education in humanity.
Varanasi presses close upon the Ganges, buildings in the back elbowing forward to be closer to her sacred waters, compressing streets into crooked cracked pathways limited to pedestrian (foot-hoof-paw) traffic, the city’s blood flow. Most routes are too much for cows, who prefer the airy steps (“ghats”) coating the western bank of Ganga. They stand serene, slowly working over a mouthful of garbage, adding neutral eyes to the staring culture.
Leaving my boatman at the water’s edge, I wander the ghats, floating an awed gaze across the stacks of crumbling stone structures forming a sentinel for Her Holiness. Each an antique, connected to a legend or eminent historical persona.
It is not long before I find my first of the city’s many sacred spiraling trees awarded a portion of its limited space. Encircled and elevated by a stone wall — gate included — this distinguished entity extends its green gold grace to the surrounding inhabitants. A common sight in many parts of the country. Small statues nestle into nooks or carefully balance at the base, one two five maybe more. Sometimes daubs of paint stretching to a thick red ring encircling the trunk. Not necessarily associated with a deity, some simply revered for their age. I’ve seen them interrupt a road: the tree endures and the pavement makes way, splitting and curving around (would anyone do the same in the States?). A scattered sacred forest covering the subcontinent.
A nearby wall hosts a carefully painted sign advertising “Vishnu’s Tea Emporium.” I leave the beloved tree behind and wander deeper into the urban hive, enjoying its aged grace; now with a mild curiosity and hope for a cup of tea.
I’m wrong, though, and it’s a wholesale shop with a smiling young man waiting behind a row of slightly dented tin canisters. Considering my frequent experience of harassment, I hang back, reading one of the small laminated signs decorating the entrance — the chai recipe and instructions i in several different languages; I’m reading the French.
“Bonjour, vous êtes française?”
Potential for harassment decreasing, but he could be one of the many, since he’s, well, young and male. But he actually speaks the language, so I venture in, settling at the low wooden table (the room’s sole furniture), sweeping an evaluative gaze across the multi-lingual book collection propped up inside built-in shelves, and turn my attention back to the shopkeeper. The young fellow plops down across from me. This is Vishnu, the entrepreneur himself; by three sentences’ utterance, his sincerity is obvious, and the conversation grows. I linger in his little shop for hours and we share stories, information, dreams, we discover that we are both twenty-two (he opened his shop when he was seventeen). Friends shout hellos through the shop’s open front; his French teacher joins us for a while, bringing another francophone. Languages mix over tea as Varanasi continues its tumult unnoticed.
Vishnu spoils me, laying out six different samples of black tea, three loose, three rolled, on the wooden table between us, as I sit up, excited and focused. My Irish side revels in the experience, examining every angle and dimension. He runs upstairs to his family’s apartment, returning with an electric kettle and various ingredients. We carefully build a cup of chai, pausing at every level in its development so that I can taste and contemplate its construction, completing the tea-geek-fest with hand-blended masala spices matching the intensity of rolled Assam.
More than the tea event, I am grateful for a genuine friend.