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.
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.
“This time there’s no child to guide me,” I silently laugh at myself, standing in the mid-morning sun. I’m waiting for the third train, the one that will take me to my original destination — Chennai. I’ve already rejected one over-packed, sans-ladies-compartment option. The two other women on the platform leave it alone as well after some inspection, and we collect in the shade to wait for the next. I’m told it will come in thirty minutes, and I don’t mind, because compared to the total delay, it is a momentary pause.
The strained anticipation of last night is nonexistent. An old hat now — psh, second class? SO done — I forget that this is not my typical mode of travel, and can enjoy the carefree energy at this end of the platform. Sitting on the ground, leaning against my backpack, I reflect on the night before.
Thank god I pack light. I can’t imagine anyone fitting the classic 70-litres-to-break-your-back monstrosities into that crowded space. The primary reason that I made it into the train car was my ability to toss my bag over my head, sending it into the outstretched hands that rose to receive it. My curious companion, the ten-year-old girl, had later asked me about its contents.
I couldn’t open it or explain. What would I say? That I have one more shirt and some socks. Plus a small laptop, a light solo mosquito net, a handheld water purifier, books and three different spiral notebooks, a pile of malaria prophylaxis, and that, at departure, 50% of the pack was medical content. How do you say that to a self-assured family whose combined objects fit into one shopping bag and a bundle of clothes?
A train arrives, chugging and hissing, and the few women climb into the small ladies’ compartment. I turn down welcoming offers, and reject a seat for the spot at an open door. The questions that began the night are answered — I will make it to Chennai in time for my next train; but there’s no fear left to ease, and I nestle into door’s adjacent corner to see the unfiltered world.
In the night, a grandmother and the mother had pulled the door open after a good half of the hallway’s occupants had disembarked. This had enabled the chai man’s last efforts to supply the train, and after we had rolled slowly into the dark, they left it open, gazing out at the countryside, sipping chai. I remember the grandmother. Her age and oppressed female status was irrelevant, as her strong body leaned against the door frame and her leg swayed out into the air. Her inner energy smoldered under her skin, her peaceful, confident face seemed to be appraising the land that lay before her. The younger ones, myself included, were sorting out sleeping positions; but as we were drifting off, I thought about her, saw an inner strength played out in her body, laced with an acceptance that was far from defeated.
Bright sunshine heats my right side as fields and trees zoom by under the train’s pace. I let one leg loose, but keep it in line with the car so my mind isn’t invaded by images of losing it. Hours go by, and I wiggle and adjust my pack. No books, no music, just experience and silence in the racket of wheel-on-track. Exhilarated by the train’s speed and open space between myself and this confusing, complicated country, I feel elated and connected.
We snake through towns, revealing patched-together slums (because who would choose to live next to the tracks?). At best, stones are stacked into walls and bridged with tarp-covered metal sheets, then weighed down with rocks. Animals mix with drying clothes and running children. I don’t hide my whiteness, the anomaly sitting in the door of a second class train car, but I am still removed. I can absorb and observe at a distance. But, then again, they can return that gaze. A seeing and seen exchange, poverty as a suspected vulnerability — but that cannot be assumed.
I am thrown out of myself later, in an air-conditioned, quiet restaurant complete with white tablecloths. Dumped into a frenetic train station, officially the most people I’ve seen in one place in my life, I’ve come for a place to discreetly access my laptop, and it is the only discernible candidate in the area. Was I really so comfortable in second class? I felt more accepted and far less unusual there, where I had expected the opposite. Where everything about our economic and cultural differences demanded the opposite, but that was not what happened.
The waiters are staring at me, and my discomfort increases.