Memorable Train Travel in India

One main mode of travel in India is Railroads. Thousands of people travel them daily. Anecdotes come to mind regarding fellow passengers, peeling and eating fine oranges in December, rolled out sleeping bags on the upper berth. During our travels within India from 1962-65, we never booked air flights; they were too expensive. (Neither did we ever place a phone call back to the States. Blue fold-up airforms that took ten days to two weeks to arrive carried our news.) During one winter vacation, we used our sleeping bags forty nights, many of those spent in the top berth of third-class sleeper train cars. Only on rare occasions did I travel in the “Women’s Only” car. India’s rail network had been well developed during the British era. Sights, sounds, and smells from a railway car contain memories for an entire book, for those who observe with empathy and delight. Perhaps one account gives flavor enough for this article. [J and D refer to John and Dorothy.]

As the train slowly backed along the station platform, J joined near-stampeding Indians to enter third-class cars. Originating at the bottom of the Himalayan foothills in Dehra Dun, the Mussoorie Express engulfed the onrush, in spite of locked doors. Through open windows, bodies scrambled, the momentary contortion preceding each squatter’s claim to territory inside.

Dusk approached. December air lost its crispness among the pulsing mob. Standing on our loaded metal trunk, her legs touching suitcases on either side, D laughed as J’s feet disappeared after dangling over the window. Through that car’s ten other windows went bare feet, rope-fastened baskets and bedding bisters, plus stacked tiffin carriers full of rice and curry. Trunks angled and slid through openings, revealing cushioned heads above red, floppy shirts on coolies (or porters).

“D!” The shout from inside called her away from the spectacle outside. Our designated coolie shuttled the luggage in to J who, with the smallest bag and one unrolled sleeping bag, had reserved the two luggage racks of one six-foot compartment. With each piece accounted for, J dropped out through the window. “O.K., D, you’re next!” With one shoulder braced against the train, J braced his feet and formed a step with his cupped hand. Into that cup went D’s one foot, her arms reaching for the window ledge. Pulling herself up, with cooperation from a firm push on her bottom, the needed weight balanced on the sill before twisting and swinging in. “I didn’t learn that swivel motion on the trampoline for nothing!” D called.

Within confining walls, the din increased. In the semi-darkness, swarming travelers stepped on each other’s feet, breathed down each other’s necks, and weakened sensitive eardrums. Any effort left D more exhausted. She had not gone to bed until 4 a.m. because of last-minute projects and packing. Meanwhile, J tried desperately to get rid of the persistent coolie. Limited Hindi and exaggerated gestures helped little to convince the fellow that some foreigners know the standard rates. Throwing what had been paid back at J, the coolie fled across two vacant tracks to join the throng of red-shirt parasites attaching themselves to the Dehra Dun Express, which had just arrived.

In disbelief J slipped his hand into his pocket, glanced toward the men in red, and crawled back in to D. “Did you see what he did? He threw my payment. back at me and went away mad.”
“Didn’t you give enough?”
“Sure I did,” replied J. “But some Indians need to learn that being white and ‘being loaded’ are not synonymous.”
D’s response, “I guess you both managed to humiliate each other,” was lost in the confusion.

Through the windows poured thirty-some Nepali laborers, each with his pick or spade and a nondescript, cloth bag slung over his shoulder or clutched with a handle. The chaos mounted as the group filled two benches intended for eight people, the couple-foot space between benches, and the narrow aisle. J & D climbed onto the wooden slat luggage racks, about three feet from the rounded ceiling, to watch, unable to converse or absorb the total picture.

Then began an exodus. Evidently, a fellow Nepali traveler spotted a more accommodating car. From the open window, each dropped like April hail in mid-July. “Thank goodness,” sighed J, swinging his legs down onto the bench below. “Are you going to stay up there?”
“Yah. This train isn’t scheduled to leave for a half-hour, so I might as well read. I’m eager to start The Possessed.

Just then J noticed an Indian family moving in. The father stowed paraphernalia under the bench opposite J. A few cousin-brothers each ordered about how best to store baskets and bisters too unevenly shaped to fit neatly into the space a foot high. Then came Memsahib with three little ones. The father soon started the typical conversation: “You from USA?”
“Yes,” J replied.
“What you do in India?” continued the questioner.
“Teach school in Mussoorie; U.P.; Wood-istock-ischool.”
“Oh, Mussoorie! Very good. Very nice place. You make big salary?”
That was the key question. Pondering how to answer without divulging his modest income, J’s attention was diverted.
“Oh, no!” was all that J heard from D as she recognized the Nepali bunch.

Evidently, the pastures elsewhere were not so green. In the meantime, car doors had been unlocked. But rather than check into that possibility, the troupe again scaled the side of the train and fell through the open window. Feeling the pressure of human beings, J put one foot on the disappearing bench and swung his body around and up onto the luggage rack. He read D’s amused lips: “Give up?” as she flitted from and back to Dostoevsky. “Hey, the train’s moving!” Checking his watch, J added, “Not bad, only fifteen minutes late.”

The ‘speaking-in-tongues’ rose and fell as the Nepalis settled and resettled themselves. With his head propped on top of his overturned briefcase, J tried to detach himself from the surroundings—through Time. Like expecting a white Christmas in Delhi. Soon D gave up on The Possessed and unzipped her sleeping bag. ‘Shall I try to get to the toilet around the corner?’ she asked herself. ‘I doubt if it’s worth the effort,’ she concluded with a glance. The entire floor was hidden under the mass of men curled up or hunkered. Burlap bags, knees, and rounded spades served as pillows. ‘Jacob was lucky to have a stone out in the open!’ she decided.

While the Nepalis gawked in wonder, D crawled inside her bag and zipped it part way. She wiggled around to make the spaces between the three-inch wooden slats more comfortable and turned her back toward the overhead light and curious travelers. This being the first night on an Indian train for some months, she reacquainted herself with the security: one chain supported her bed. It angled just above her shoulder, touching her with each rocking, east-west motion of the southbound train.

A partial lull settled over the huddled Nepalis, and the Indian family bedded itself down. A half-hour later and a half-hour late, the Mussoorie Express chugged alongside a village platform where the pulse of India throbbed. In the middle of any night her train stations bustle. With no need for a public address system to announce arrivals or departures, hawkers, through guttural repetitions of “garam chai” penetrate dozing passengers’ consciousness. They passed clay cups of steaming tea through open windows as several Nepalis came to life. Then, as the first gong clanged—clang of imminent leaving—those not yet chewing surged forward for their few paisa’s worth of betel leaf, calcium, lime, and spices folded within a green leaf. From inconspicuous folds or knots in cloth draped over their small bodies came a few coins.

Exhausted as she was, D could not concentrate on mental lists; counting Nepalis was as ineffective as sheep. A strange sensation came over her, one she had not experienced for years. ‘Good grief! I’m going to urp,’ she said to further convince herself. She grabbed her shoulder bag and dug for the roll of TP. As the Chicken Maryland forced itself upward, digging became more frantic. ‘This dumb bag! I can never find anything in a hurry.’ Knotting the two ends of her dupatta, D flipped the tails out of her way. ‘Oh, here it comes!’ Still half-dangling from the luggage rack, with one hand in her bag, D grabbed her mouth with the other and re-swallowed what had surfaced.

Clutching the TP, she jumped down and dodged over and around the sleeping forms curled up like snails on the floor, never sure if her foot landed on a bent elbow or firm squash. Nearing the heavy door into the toilet, she tapped a dozing man’s shoulder. Grunting, he sleepily moved to make room for her to push her way in; the Chicken Maryland thrust again too. Flipping the door’s lock, she glanced at the area near the Eastern style hole in the floor but chose to lean into the small, metal sink. Relieved, she caught her breath, re-established her footing with the sporadic motion of the train, and cleaned and dried her face, followed by the sink with TP. As she weakly stumbled back toward her berth, D detected empathy and knowledge of what had transpired, on several faces.

D poked J. Surprised, he raised his shoulder and squinted. “Kya bhat?”
“Oh, I just brought up my supper; no more Chicken Maryland for a while.”
“Are you finished?” he muttered.
“I think so.” She feebly crumpled into the bag and promptly slept for hours.
“Hey, D, we’re getting near Delhi,” J called. “You’d better get down and grab a turn at the toilet.”

She could hardly believe the black halo near her hairline, after washing her face. Almost losing the slippery soap down the drain, she braced herself against the sink to pour a little boiled water from the canteen to brush her teeth. Just outside the door, the masses prepared to exit, but D shoved a man here and balanced herself there on an upturned trunk to get back to J. As he stuffed the rolled-up sleeping bags into the duffel, he checked: “Are the bags all locked? There’s no rush; this train terminates here, so we might as well let the aisles clear.”
“This Express train just shuttles between Dehra Dun and Delhi?”
“Right. One night for ten hours it comes the 150 miles south and the next night it returns.” Near the door, he called back: “Guess what! We’re going out through the window again.”
“What’s wrong with the door?”
“It’s jammed. This makes our trip symmetrical.”
‘Symbolic of the Eternal Wheel,’ she pondered. Keeping her eye on J who followed a trotting coolie down the station platform, D couldn’t help but chalk up the journey as a good story for K-Wing friends.

Journeys can be figurative or real. Train ventures in India during the Sixties reflected the real. The same might be said for the Nineties, though the amenities have greatly improved. For me, an American woman, the entire experience of India has been a journey. India has also journeyed. Having moved into a second decade of independence, India in the Sixties continued to release the shackles of centuries of outside control, to determine authentic marks of its heritage. So, journeying from more rural America to the complex plurality of India opened and stretched my worldview. And so, the journey continues.