magical journeys on Indian trains, part 7

Commuters struggle to enter a train at Noli Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh

A month or so later, in the late 80’s,  it is Opium that found its way into my life for a very last goodbye.

After a short stay in Calcutta, I had decided to travel to Europe overland. I had packed my bag and waived everyone goodbye.

I had crisscrossed the country a few times already on Indian trains, usually on reserved 3Tier second class compartments, where I had a berth for myself and a minimum of comfort. But today, it is the unreserved general section I am boarding, non-reserved, non-AC, with no sleeping berths and not even seats as such. Tickets are very cheap, and those compartments are usually crowded with the poorer part of the population, but the price is not always the criteria for ending up here. When a train is really full, and there is no way to get a reservation even with baksheesh or connections, this 3rd class section can be the only way to go- and that’s what had happened this time for me.

I am in the Howrah station on the other side of Calcutta, boarding the legendary Jammu-Tawi Express. It is one of the most extended train trips you can undertake in this country; over 2000 km in the distance, and 2 days and 2 nights if all goes on schedule, which, in those days at least, never happened. I am undoubtedly apprehensive, and to be honest, I am not at all excited about it. But I have no choice as I was not ready to postpone my trip for another few weeks.

The crowd is dense and eclectic, but the chaos has something reassuring here. It is part of normality, and there are an underlying harmony and mellowness in it. Disorder in India is a very unique notion that includes a sense of freedom, of free-flow; it is incredibly earthy yet disconcerting by its whirling liveliness.

I make my way through the crowd. Howrah station at rush hour must be one of the most densely populated places on earth. People are everywhere, going this way, coming from that way, looking for their platform among dozens, searching for their compartment in trains that seem to stretch forever. And then there are all those waiting, all those sleeping on the floor, at every possible corner. In the middle of the way are people sitting or lying down, while thousands of others are rushing past them.  Many seem to just live there, most are begging. All age groups are here. Mothers are breastfeeding their newborn, kids are running around, and some old people who may not be that old, but whose life spent on the street has taken its toll. Families are sitting in clusters with all their possessions. My eyes lock with a little girl’s eyes; she is maybe 8, sitting there with her parents, looking around. Time stops for a moment as I stare into a life too vibrant to make sense of. That child is obviously undernourished and sleeping on the streets since her birth. And yet, there is a quality of presence, a light, and openness in those eyes. I can see the divine, I can see life throbbing and love shinning. She smiles. I keep moving with the crowd. I will never see her again, never know her story, never understand what that smile was about; and yet in that short meeting, the divine had transpired.

I get into the very last carriage, and I find a spot on a bench. I sigh in relief. I had dreaded an over-packed compartment where I would have to stand or sit on the floor for what is probably going to be a 3 days’ journey. I stash my backpack in a corner under the wooden plank we are sitting on. People keep pouring in, and we are already 6 sitting on what is a bench for 4. “I better keep my seat” I think, already wondering how I am going to go to the bathroom without losing my precious spot.

This time before departure is always the most stressful, and only with the first jerk of the train moving will the tension ease.

Here we are, the siren is finally announcing the imminent departure, and I can feel a subtle jolting. There are 17 different types of horns or whistles blown in the Indian Railways, each one having its own meaning, but this long, high-pitched one is perhaps the most relieving of all.

We are now slowly moving westward, and I am squeezed between 2 Bengali men, both on their way to Kashmir. There is a family with 3 little kids sharing our bench, and opposite, we have a mixed crowd including an older lady accompanied by her son. She is wearing an oversized pair of very thick glasses, tied around her head with a rubber band. She looks ancient and frail, and it feels almost painful to see her sitting on a wooden plank for such a long journey. I wonder where they are going, what their story is.

Life in this compartment is a rawer and even more human version of what I was used to in 2nd class, it is more crowded and less comfortable. But the most dreaded scenario had not happened. I do have a seat.

There is a lot of commotion around, and people are moving in all directions; most of them still looking for a spot to sit.

Indian trains are extraordinarily rich, especially in the poorest part where I find myself now. There is so much stimulus on the senses from different angles at any given time, so many impressions on the nervous system. It is an ongoing festival of sounds and colours and vibrations. It is often gut-wrenching to see humanity in such a raw and primal state, but there always comes a moment where relaxation happens, and all looks simple and part of a more significant happening. I am slowly relaxing into myself, letting the movement of the train and the passing rice fields be part of the landscape. We are now entering a little station. More people will come in, trying to squeeze wherever possible. Chai Wallahs will go around and sell tea in small clay cups meant to be thrown out after use. Our train now comes to a full stop. I better keep my seat. From peanuts to sodas to samosas to newspapers, anything can be purchased through the bars of the window without leaving your place. I look outside. There is a large clock hanging there above the platform- it is now 11.20.

“We only left one hour ago,” I think to myself. I quickly figure out that I may still be here in 2 or 3 days, and I don’t feel about counting how many hours that adds to.

“Cha Cha Cha!!! “A little boy, hardly 10, manages to place his big aluminium teapot on the floor between all the legs, feet and sandals. My 2 neighbours get a cup and look satisfied. At 50 paisa it is ok, and I also get one. I have a money belt on, where I keep my cash and passport, but I also have a little purse with coins and small change. I haven’t used it for a while, and it is in my backpack, right there under the seat. It should be easily within reach in one of the side pockets. Without leaving my seat, I bend down, open the zip, and feel around a bit, until I suddenly touch something I had forgotten. My eyes must have lit up. Yes, now I remember, it is another cotton purse where I used to keep my grass. I know that I don’t have grass with me, but what I now remember and feel through the bag is really unexpected and exciting. It is a rather good piece of Opium that I had almost thrown away in Varanasi. But instead of discarding it, I had put it in that little purse and forgotten it.

Now our train is leaving again, and I inconspicuously hold that little piece in my hand, assessing the situation and wondering what to do with it.

At other times I maybe have discreetly rolled it into a small joint and smoked it at the door of the compartment while half hanging outside watching the Indian countryside. But here I don’t feel to leave my seat for too long. We are still well within West Bengal, and the journey has basically just started.

I carefully divide the piece into 2, put one half in my pocket and, casually passing my hand over my face, I swallow the other half.

Slowly, almost unperceivably, as the train keeps rolling and life keeps unfolding according to a cosmic law I don’t dream of understanding, the sense of time changes. It stretches, stops, and starts again according to new principles. Villages come and go outside of the window; platforms appear and then make way for more fields and more outstanding nature. Sellers enter the compartment with their goods and leave unnoticed. Little kids sweep the floor and then come back to collect a few paisas. Food is served, and eaten. People look at each other, and eyes stare into the mystery of other human beings.

As I look up, I notice that it’s dark. Night must have fallen already, and I have a little shrug of surprise. It is all very noisy and alive, the kids are running around, and life is in full swing in carriage number 29. I am now part of this little group of approximately 20 people, most of us squeezed on the 2 wooden benches, and  a few sitting or lying on the floor. It’s an excellent time to ask Ravi, my neighbour, to keep my seat 5 minutes while I go to the bathroom. I have been pretty quiet and with myself, but I had connected with Ravi and impressed him with the fluency of my Bengali. The trip to the bathroom is memorable; it is filthier than I have ever seen, and apparently, the water supplies run out. People are sleeping everywhere on the floor.

I stand by the carriage door, hold myself to the bars and swing outside. The air is warm, and the train is now smoothly zooming through the night. I feel one with the wind.

I come back. My seat is taken. I realise that my neighbours had just spread slightly in my absence, closing the little gap meant for my buttocks. They all come closer to each other again, and I sit down. “Was I away more than 5 minutes?” I wonder,” could it be that I stood there by the door for hours?” I have no idea, but I do notice the lightening of the sky outside and the orange shade over the green of the fields.

Breakfast is served. A very long stop at a Station. Lunch. Another toilet break. I doze and fall asleep, maybe. Another day passes, or two I can’t tell. I eat the second and very last bit of that sticky black paste, and time slows further. Another night. Another day.

Suddenly there is an unusual movement in the carriage. People are getting ready. I ask Ravi. “We are arriving in Jammu soon. Last stop” he says. I scratch my eyes. 2 or 3 days have passed just like that, and I am now at the feet of the mighty Himalayas, off to Srinagar and then Pahalgam where I want to see Jesus’s grave.

I soon find myself in a rickshaw in search of a guest house to finally lie down and sleep. It has been the most extra ordinary journey ever in this country. The longest yet the shortest. The most uncomfortable yet the easiest and most relaxing.

My story with Opium ended here in Jammu, and I never touched that black latex again.

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