a break journey ends up breaking the author down.
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Last saturday, my college had the foresight of finally realizing that the Varanasi sun was hell bent on killing its students from dehydration and sunburn and hence closed itself down for the summer holidays. Now, if you have not experienced the Indian summer, let me tell you, It’s HOT! And when I write hot, there is a reason I write it in capitals. It’s the hot of being barbecued on the grill over a coal fire, the kind of hot that causes boils on your backside just by sitting outside in the sun. So, you can understand the relief with which I hurriedly filled my bags and abandoned ship to catch the earliest train to my air conditioned home.
There is this to say about an Indian train journey. It is nothing short of a survival trip in the Amazons. I would say the Amazon survival trip looks pretty
lame when compared to a train trip in India. Unless you have your strategies planned out and your survival gear properly upgraded, chances are you will not make it in one piece. In the relief of having escaped prison before term ended, I had overlooked this small detail. Packed in an overcrowded auto rickshaw a half hour later, I realized this too late. In Varanasi, public transport has a strange philosophy. If the vehicle is meant for five, the driver won’t start his engine until he has managed to pack at least ten people in it. When they tell you India is a country of 1.2 billion people, you find it hard to understand how they manage to fit themselves into a country one-fifth the size of Brazil. That is until you see Varanasi. The people are everywhere! Packed into tiny shacks, hanging from rooftops, squeezed into rickshaws, clogging narrow roads. Ever seen a soccer stadium at capacity? How you don’t have room to even pick your nose? Well, you get the idea.
But I am digressing. Where was I? Oh yeah, packed into an overcrowded auto rickshaw. An Indian auto rickshaw is not as much a vehicle as a bunch of corroded iron sticks stuck together with cheap welding, with the scooter engine thrown in as an afterthought. Once it hits speeds of over thirty, the engine starts singing its swan song. The whole vehicle starts shaking and wheezing as if threatening to come apart, making even the most stubborn of atheists remember their prayers. My vehicle was doing a competent fifty, and that’s something to say on a road that looked more like an obstacle course, complete with potholes, mud pits, cows, hand carts and even a couple of enterprising vegetable carts selling their goods in the middle of the road. The driver had apparently trained in stunt driving, because he did not hit a single hole, cart, pit or patch of dung. He did knock a cyclist off his bicycle but hey, that’s just a way of saying ‘hello’ in Varanasi. So, there I was packed into the back with one hand firmly attached to my seat to prevent me from being thrown onto the road and the other clapped over my nose to cut out the smell from the goat that my co passenger had so thoughtfully tagged along. It wasn’t helping matters that this grimy heap of a boy seated next to me was happily digging away at his nose and flicking the bogies away in what he clearly thought was an aristocratic manner. In the front, a sooty old guy was busy aiming for a clear patch of road to shoot his paan spit. I tried poking my face out of the back to catch some air, but there were three more idiots hanging happily out of it, grinning like it was the cleverest thing to do. In short, the station could have come no sooner.
I wrestled myself out of the rickshaw finally, stepping carefully out of a large patch of dung that a thoughtful cow had deposited there and paid the driver his money. I would have taken a deep breath to open up my lungs, but the stench from the overflowing sewer nearby would probably have killed me. A guy was relieving himself on the footpath, not even trying to be discreet, in full view of the public. I was already half fried by the sun, so I bit back my retort, picked up my bag and dived into the station.
Holy shit! I clearly had picked a bad day. The station entrance was blocked by two hundred of the dirtiest, sweatiest and smelliest travelers imaginable, who had probably found it a good place to park themselves. Most of them were having quite a picnic, complete with food and games, even a game of gully cricket going strong in the middle. I struggled to the gates, careful not to squash someone’s face. The station was as filthy as usual, so I heaved a sigh of relief. If you have travelled in Indian railways, you are aware of our method of waste disposal. Our stations never waste money on dustbins, because people find it too much of a trouble to walk to one to dump their trash. Instead, we just throw it on the tracks. How ingenious! The tracks even serve as a makeshift toilet for those too lazy to walk into the washroom. Even the train toilets follow this philosophy. How do we manage the shit on the tracks, you ask? Oh, that’s simple. We don’t mind. Indian people are hardy folk. They can live in the most adverse of situations imaginable. Put an American in the Amazon rain forests, he will starve and rot to death in what, a day or two? Put a couple of Indians in the Amazon. They will have their little community up and running in no time, no problem sir! What’s a little shit on the tracks for them, then?
I bought a Pepsi to cool myself up. You would think it strange how a place where people shit on the roads could offer you Pepsi. But it does, and that’s a relief. Anyway, my train pulled up just an hour late (lucky me!) and I jumped in. I hadn’t secured an A/C reservation so it was a general coach that I jumped into.
Now when I say ‘jumped into’, don’t get carried away. It’s just a figure of speech. You don’t ‘jump into’ Indian trains. There seldom is space on them to do that. My coach was no exception. Not only was it filled to capacity, it was also bursting at the seams! The people were packed practically everywhere. Heaped onto seats, covering the floor, even parked on the luggage racks, each nook and cranny possible to be filled was filled. A seat for two had six or eight people jostling for a space to park their backsides. Those who could not find a seat parked on the passage floor, those who did not find room in the passage got under the seats, and those who did not find room under the seats parked themselves outside the toilet. No wonder we Indians are so small! We spend our lives squeezing ourselves into places too small for us. But that’s not really a problem for us. The crowd in the coach didn’t seem to mind that the coach was filled to about five times its capacity and even made space for me to park myself, however impossible that may seem. Most of it was made of overlarge families that seemed to have forgotten when to stop reproducing. They chatted happily as if attending a family gathering, oblivious to the fact that their elbow was in somebody’s face. Hanging off the edge of the luggage rack, I was having fond memories of the auto rickshaw. This journey will be over in five hours, I thought thankfully.
Five hours later, I was still two hours away from my destination. Apparently, the driver of some other train was still busy with his lunch and had forgotten to get his train’s ass off the track. You can predict stock markets, but you can’t predict Indian trains. Even the Saint of Fortune sitting proudly atop the Himalayas will throw up his hands on this one. “Ahh! You got me there!” he’ll say, shaking his bearded head. Five hours in a tin box packed like sardines with the filthiest, sweatiest, smelliest creatures imaginable and you say two more hours? The compartment was reeking of the smell of stale food, urine and gaseous anal expulsions. I felt like a contestant on Fear Factor, choked to death. I had to get out. I surveyed my surroundings. The passage surface was covered in a solid layer of dirty co passengers making getting off the rack impossible. Calling out to all the Hindu gods that I knew the names of (I knew only a couple, by the way!), I grabbed my pack and swung off the rack, leaping outside through the door nearby. Oh no, no need to catch your breath! The train was only doing about five kilometers per hour, so I survived. I finally took a deep breath of fresh air. I think my prayers had been genuine, because I could see a station ahead, and I raced to it to find a more habitable transport.
Mother of god! I was in luck after all! There was a train running home, and moreover, it was quite empty! (At least the a/c coach was!) so I greased the TTE’s pockets, and dived into the A/C coach to catch the air conditioning. My relief was short lived. Soon, a large fat family of grumbling parents and squeaking children filled the compartment. The children were so fat I had trouble counting them, but I think seven would be a safe number. Seven! Holy shit! Why are Indians so mum about sex if they are so reproductively active? Talk to an Indian about sex, and he will go all deaf, clear his throat loudly and say “Come again?”. Seven! How the hell did they manage to feed and maintain seven little elephants? And how the hell did they think they were going to fit themselves into a single compartment? The TTE must have done good business today. Before I knew, the mother and her litter had filled most of the compartment and the dad was busy stuffing their obscenely large luggage under the bunks. I felt sorry for the dad; he was the only thin guy in the family. I guess he never realized what he was getting himself into until after marriage. The mother shot a degrading look towards me and I suddenly realized how grimy and sweaty I looked. So I grabbed my soap and went into the toilet. I was out in a second. Apparently, the price of an A/C ticket does not guarantee that its occupants have proper toilet habits. I decided to keep to my smelly condition rather than step into shit.
I returned to camp to find myself in the middle of a full blown picnic. One of the immense bags that the fat family carried apparently held a sumptuous feast, which was now spread over every inch of bunk that the fat kids were not occupying. Indian people, however cheap and hardy they might be, never compromise in the matter of food. There was rice, chapattis, potatoes, two curries, a salad and even (my stomach growled helplessly on seeing this one) butter chicken! If they packed this kind of lunch for a train journey, I wondered what they considered a proper lunch at home! Two of the little pigs were grunting over a Play Station Portable. Spoilt little brats! Fighting over a stupid toy! (My parents never could afford one of those for me!). I searched for a place to sit, and not succeeding, decided to climb to the upper bunk. The father smiled apologetically at me. I began having second thoughts about marriage.
At the next station, two more families came into the compartment, claiming stakes on the already overflowing bunks. The TTE must be quite rich by now! I thought. The fact that they did not have any little elephants with them was a small relief. I counted heads. Fifteen people in a compartment meant for six! Maybe I should have stuck to air travel. At least a plane meant for eighty has eighty on board, not a thousand! I bet the Indians will change that too in a couple of years. I prayed for this train to reach home quickly.
Wonder of wonders! The train did get me home on time, and I almost fell off the train in my haste to distance myself from that horrible family. My local station is relatively clean, probably because there aren’t enough people to shit on the tracks at this lonely station in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, dad’s car was waiting outside and I dived into it to cool off the boils developing on my backside. I felt like Leonidus in 300, returning from battle with the Persians. Leonidus had 300 Spartans with him, and he had fallen in battle. I had fought my war alone, and had reached home alive! I felt I deserved a victory ceremony. Instead I got dad’s irritated scowl.
“You could have called to say you would be late! Do you know how long I have been waiting out in the sun? And why the hell are you so filthy?”
The world is never fair, is it? You think you do a pretty good job of coping up with everything it throws at you, but the only thing it ever sees and points out is your mistakes.
“We’d better hurry up. We have a train to catch to Calcutta in the evening. We’re going to your grand parent’s house!” dad announced. I looked at him incredulously. Another train journey? After all I had been through? Dad smiled at me as if it was a very attractive proposition. I fell back, helpless.
Maybe this homecoming wasn’t a very good idea after all………!
Note: The author is currently an undergraduate studying in Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and whatever views put forward in this article are purely personal and in good humor(you bet!), and are not meant to be racist or degrading in any way(he himself is an Indian!).