Traveling in India would be incomplete without a train journey. Through your ideas of Hollywood adventures and bygone luxury out that barred window. This is the real Indian Railways.
At quarter to five in the afternoon, Old Delhi Station shrouds itself in hot haze. It lacks the chaos—pushing, yelling, stinking, groping—of New Delhi Station. Instead there is a gray indifference like in the later stages of an epidemic—aimless bodies sprawl on the concrete slab of the terminal scrunched against hard square suitcases, heads crash upon sleeping neighbors’ ribbed bellies, knees curl beneath futile fans dozens of feet above. Dust and dirt and the stench of old garbage waft in on a warm wave of air.
Looking beyond the concrete slab where the tracks vanish in the haze, suddenly a dark square with a rounded top appears—a train from frontal view—against the white of dust and heat. Skinny silhouettes crisscross in front of the growing train without hesitation, without haste.
Our train, an ancient blue dust mule with barred windows, arrives at the platform minutes before it is scheduled to leave. We rush to find the right car, zigzagging around seated bodies and busted concrete.
A short Indian man in a red and yellow uniform carrying a square basket offers to lead us to our car. He is quick and shifty and the thick beads of sweat leap from his brow when he turns his head. He gets us where we need to be, then asks if we want dinner. “Sure,” I say.
He lays out tin foil and then paper plates. “Oh wery good, sir. Vill enjoy,” he says. Next come chapatis and rice and vegetables. With a bright smile he names a price. “Oh,” I say, “no. I thought you worked for the train…that it was included.” “No, sir. No food on this train, sir. Wery hungry, sir. Good food, sir.” I apologize and thank him for showing us the cabin. I’ve been in India too long to believe that.
He leaves spitting Hindi under his breath. Over the next ten minutes seventeen similar men pop through our curtain or—after I close it—open the door and make similar offers with similar threats of hunger. Finally, I close and lock the door.
Now there is another knock. Another man in a blue shirt says dinner will be served at eight. How many do we want? “Two veg,” I say. He writes it down and disappears.
Our cabin is proudly early 1980s. There is a rounded corner picture window outlined in silver metal, faux wood linoleum walls, and two broad brown faux leather benches that face one another. An air-conditioner hums from the corner keeping the room mild. Two bunk beds jut above, and we are relieved that the cabin, which sleeps four, only has two as the train jolts forward.
Within the hour, the light disappears and we are passing slums. Miniature cinder block cells stack upon each other like poorly laid Tetris squares. They are mint green and aqua blue and bare cinderblock and full of people. A shirtless man stands akimbo stretching his back and extending his bare cardamom belly forward on a bare slab of roof. Children play dangerously close to the train, and I realize the tracks are dangerously close to the dwellings. Groups of five to twenty sit around trees, fires, pots, empty tires—now a circle of women in polychromatic saris, now a bunch of shirtless men. More than anything there is camaraderie.
At eight the man arrives with dinner (after checking back several times to write our order again—“yes, two veg”). He lays the food out, and it is not as delectable as the first offer appeared to be. He names a price. It is nothing, a dollar or two, but we kick ourselves for not having bought the other food. We thought this was included. It may very well, but to whom will we complain? And why?
We eat and stare out the picture window watching flickering orange lights float by in the blackness, sometimes surrounded by orange cheeks and noses and turbans.
Halfway through forcing the oily rice sopping vegetables into our pieholes, we stop at a desolate station—a few slabs of busted concrete beneath a single light. Perpendicular to our window are ten men seated with bony knees raised into bony arms, stained cloths wrapped around their heads and bodies, matted beards, hollowed eyes.
One man looks at me and smiles. He waves. I smile and wave. He rises, walks with dangling arms to the train window, cups his hands before me and points to his mouth. We freeze, look at our half-eaten food and then each other. The train slips away.
Compassion and charity exhaust themselves in India. In the U.S., there is poverty, but it is nowhere near as profound, ubiquitous, or absolute as in India. A person of tremendous merit and selflessness would also find her limits on the sub-continent; destitute balances upon every pebble.
As we prepare our beds, a thundering knock rattles our door. I draw the curtain. A towering Indian man, elongated with sharp bones in his face, a tall black mustache and thick black eyebrows, fills the door window. His countenance is stern and impatient. I raise my eyebrows. “Yeah?”
He points to the train logo on his blazer and lifts a clipboard. “Tickets.” I unlock the door and open it. He steps in and sits on one of the couch-beds. “Tickets and passports,” he says.
We show them. He checks our names against his list and then our passports. I ask if anyone will be joining us. “Two,” he says. “At Jaipur. 11:30.” He stands and walks to the door. Just before leaving he turns, shakes a long skeletal finger in my face and with fearsome seriousness says, “Lock this door. Do not open it for anyone but me.” I do as he commands.
Around midnight another knock wakes us. I pull back the curtain. There is a different man: short, squat, but with a similar blazer and clipboard. Next to him is an Indian man in plain clothes, peering over his shoulder into our room.
“What?” I say through the glass. “Tickets,” he says. I grab them and press them to the glass. “Open,” he says. I hesitate. He knocks again with a thick knuckle. “Sir, open,” he says.
I unlock the door, slide it open a tad, and step into the hallway, closing it behind me. The man reviews the tickets and passports with the other man. They return them to me. “Sir, thank you,” says the one in the blazer, and they walk down the hallway.
In the morning we wake to a bright sun and a Carolina blue sky absent a single cloud. Below is golden sand and sandstone that disappear at the horizon. There are herders with goats, desiccated trees, and camels (one, two, six) walking across the endless ocean of sand and sandstone.
I sit on the empty bed that was never claimed, across from my bed. Lola stirs on the top bunk. The desert rolls by in waves. I look beneath my bed and see an empty but primed large metal rat trap.
Soon we pull into Jaislamer and are blasted by intense dry heat. We meet our driver and begin to explore Rajasthan, India’s desert of kings. Three days later I tell Lola about the rat trap. She smacks me. “At least it was empty,” I say. “Right,” she says, “which means it’s still loose.” I fear her train-riding days are setting.
-M. Myers Griffith
Photos by Lola Pava
Originally published on Asia Sketches, December 9, 2013.
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