Indian Train Journey
Chennai Central railway station burgeoned with Indians "camped out" on the floor amidst mounds of luggage, stacks of boxes and sacks of rice. As the elongated Coromandel Express slid leisurely in along the platform, the multitudes surged forward, jostling to get to their coach, even before it came to its screeching halt. It would take some time in the scramble, for everyone to find their seats and stow and chain their baggage.
I was embarking on a 30-hour train journey north to Kolkata, a distance of some 2,000 miles. The train would hug India's east coast most of the journey, passing through Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, before entering West Bengal. Recently in Vietnam, I was to meet the Indian Defence Attachè, who waxed nostalgic upon hearing the name "Coromandel Express". This was the "most notorious train", he said, "because it passed through so many states; it used to take only 22 hours and was the fastest train in India in the early 70s. Then it was made to stop at every stop. And there have been so many robberies..." Apparently the thieves used some kind of powder that induced a deep sleep, and passengers would wake up to find everything, including their shoes, gone!
My Coromandel Express experience was in February 2006. I had been in India for four months already and had become familiar with its colour, chaos and filth, and its impressively efficient rail system, a relic of the British Raj. A berth in sleeper second class was a bargain at 530 rupees (a mere $11) from one end of the country to the other. Here open compartments accommodated six people on three tiers of couchettes either side, and across the aisle, two more. An upper berth ticket was the best, if you could get it. It offered a retreat during the day for rest or reading, and also a convenient perch from which to survey all the foot traffic in the aisle.
This was the first and longest leg of my journey to Nepal, travelling from one volunteer project in Tamil Nadu (post-tsunami) to a children's project near Kathmandu. I would need to change trains again in Varanasi, for Gorakhpur further west, near the Nepali border. Several days of eclectic travel.
On trains you just never know who you will be thrown together with, for better or for worse. This time I found myself the only white woman in a compartment with a group of seven or eight Indian men. They were friendly enough, but it seemed that none of them spoke English, so that first day, I was able to keep to myself and gaze out of the open windows. It was pleasantly airy and cool, as the train chugged along, in spite of the Indian heat. However, the gradually changing scenery along the coast was soon upstaged by the rapidly shifting human landscape.
On the Coromandel Express your every need was catered for: men proffered toothbrushes, soap, glossy magazines, "The Hindu" and "Times of India" newspapers, pamphlets, chains and padlocks for securing luggage, CDs, MP3s, DVDs, and all manner of useless plastic junk. You could even have your shoes shined. And a near ceaseless stream of food "wallahs" moved through in both directions, selling a vast array of comestibles. Some wallahs seemed to remain on the train, making repeat appearances, while others had a "walk-on" part, embarking at one station or another, and disembarking down the line. The most comical sight was of two different wallahs stepping off the train, with their tray of wares, while it was still moving at speed—they landed running!
Every wallah had a different chant, the most frequent being for chai—sweet milk-tea, "CHAR, CHAI, CHAWA!" "CHAI, COPPEE, CHAI, COPPEE!" or sometimes spiced tea, "SPECIAL CHAI, MASALA CHAI!" —and cold drinks "WATER, PANI, WATER!" "COLD DRINKS, COLA, PEPSI, SLICE!" Others called out their type of snacks—"VADAI, VADAI, VADAI!" "SAMOSAS", "CHIPS, CHIPS!" "DAL MURI!" and from the pantry car: "VEGETABLE CUTLET!" "TOMATO SOUP, VEGETABLE SOUP!" "LUNCH, EXTRA MEALS, LUNCH!" Throughout the day I watched this rotating banquet and one basket, bag or box after another of grapes, oranges, guavas, cashews, peanuts, biscuits, boiled eggs, juice, lassi and milk was carried past our eyes. The temptation to graze and savour was irresistible. And afterwards you could chew on paan, an after-dinner digestive of betelnut leaf wrapped around various seeds and spices.
Everything I tried was tasty, freshly made and very cheap, and most of it wrapped in newspaper, stitched banyan leaves, or dried leaf-bowls (capti khullar). The chai was sometimes served in small terra-cotta cups (which were then smashed, and crushed underfoot), but more often in plastic cups. People just tossed their rubbish out of the windows. Anything edible is scavenged by dogs, cows and pigs, and the crows—but the plastic remains, an eyesore and an environmental plague throughout India.
A lot of the garbage is just dropped on the floor of the train. At intervals a grubby child of five or six would crawl through, using his T-shirt to sweep aside the detritus, before coming back round with hand outstretched. His service was not acknowledged or compensated by all. But then, he was just one of many, appealing for a few rupees.
In and among the food traffickers was a whole cavalcade of beggars, one singing a different kind of tune. It was a blind man, with a voice as sweet as a lark, groping his way along. He blessed any who put a coin in his hand. During my time in India, I came across a number of singing blind beggars, and assumed they were exploiting a talent to make a living. However, the film "Slumdog Millionaire" gave a different and chilling perspective on it: of the vulnerable children, enticed into the clutches of racketeers, the one with the best voice was blinded, and then sent out to beg. ("Blind singers earn double"*). One beggar had half an arm missing, while another had no arms, but steel-clawed extensions. Victims of birth defects or industrial accidents? Or deliberate maiming? The number and variety of mutilations and missing limbs in India is striking.
A man with polio dragged his useless stick-thin legs down the now filthy aisle, groveling on his knees. It always disconcerted me to see human beings thus animalized. I was to see many polio victims over the ensuing months, some of them children, scampering around on all fours like dogs. Up to two thousand children are paralysed by the polio virus every year, most of them in India. One in two hundred of those develop "flaccid paralysis" of the legs, and there is no cure. And no social services to support them.
Ragged children with large sunken eyes pawed at me through the window as the train stood still at a station. Grizzled sadhus, barefoot in orange robes, collected alms. Another by now familiar figure, a gypsy woman with a crying baby, harangued people with anguished face, gesturing to the baby's mouth. ("Babies earn double. Keep her crying, you'll earn triple."*) I was told about one such woman, spotted down an alley, smacking the baby until it wailed. It is well known that these women "borrow" or even rent babies to beg with and can be most persistent.
A colourful trio of hijra, heavily made-up "women", wove through the train "clapping for money". The hijra is a so-called "third sex" of hermaphrodites, transvestites or eunuchs, who form a special caste. In Indian society they are stigmatised as neither men nor women. They identify "with two Hindu deities that are also sexually ambiguous: Bahuchara Mata, the Mother Goddess, and Shiva. The goddess cut off her breasts when attacked by an enemy, while Shiva is said to have castrated himself and thrown his linga into the world, to spread his sexual power to the universe, resulting in the fertility cult of linga worship."
Hijras may show up at weddings and birth rituals to give blessings for luck and fertility—for a price. They strike fear into some Indians for their power to curse and cause impotence to people who fail to donate.
I was intrigued that these hijra did not accost me. Instead they smiled sweetly and greeted me with "Namaste". I subsequently encountered many such trios (I never found out why they were always in threes), but no hijra ever bothered me. There is a reason they don't target westerners, someone told me, but added cryptically that it was not PC to say why.
As night drew in, the activity of the aisles subsided, passengers began to settle in their bunks and lights went out. The motion of the train and the whirring of overhead fans brought easy sleep, in spite of several snorers. It was the call of "CHAI, CHAI! CHAWA!" that roused me again around 5 a.m. Indians are early risers, and noisy with their morning ablutions—what I might call the "dawn chorus of phlegm removal". For a long time I resisted descending my perch, drifting and dozing above the clamour below.
After breakfast, I was surprised when one of the men in my compartment struck up conversation with me—a small, gentle man, named Giri, who was not after all in the group, but travelling alone. He was a particle scientist. "What's that?" I asked. When he replied, "It's another name for nuclear scientist," I inwardly recoiled, having both a visceral and intellectual aversion to nuclear power.
My urge to enquire and challenge evolved into a fascinating exchange, which dashed my initial prejudice. I was already aware that what quantum physicists were observing in the laboratory, about mind and the fundamental nature of the universe, was known to India's sages thousands of years ago, through direct experience in their meditations. Giri, though a scientist, was a very spiritual man, someone who was looking at phenomena within, as well as without. Thankfully, he was not developing bombs.
He expounded on how humans get energy: "We 'eat' sunlight through the mechanism of photosynthesis, which traps sunlight through transpiration, and glucose becomes starch. We eat starch and drink water, and digestion produces glucose. We inhale oxygen, which combines with glucose, eliminate water and carbon dioxide and get energy (prana)." Scribbling down the formula to clarify, he said, "We begin with CO2 + H2O and end with CO2 + H2O." Chemistry lessons on the Coromandel Express!
I had only that week received teachings in Auroville on the "Upanishads" (the mystic wisdom of India's ancient yogi on Brahman, the ultimate nature of reality). One aspect was about prana—the breath of life being blown into annam—matter (food). We eat fresh food, not because of matter, but prana. Just as Giri had extrapolated through science.
Like me he was a practitioner of pranayama, one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word meaning "extension or expansion of prana". The varied techniques benefit in multiple ways, for example Sun and Moon Breath (alternate nostril breathing), which purifies the blood, oxygenates the body and regulates body temperature, while Kapalbhati (frontal brain cleansing breath) energises the mind. Giri told me regular practice allows one to acclimatize to higher altitudes in four hours rather than four days. Good news for me on my way to the Himalayan Kingdom!
Absorbed thus in the complex workings of life and the universe, time passed quickly and around noon the train pulled into Howrah station, and Giri and I said our farewells. I had four hours to wait between trains. Howrah is an enormous train station. Before I could get lost, I was picked up by two chivalrous Indian businessmen I had met in Auroville, who whisked me off in a taxi across the river into Kolkata for a leisurely lunch and pit-stop tour of their city. Though daunted by Kolkata's reputation, I was spared the squalor. I have only vague memories of traffic, bridges and colonial buildings.
I was deposited back at Howrah station in good time to buy a book I had been seeking, "Autobiography of a Yogi", at one of the kiosks, for the next leg of my journey to Varanasi. Boarding my train, I found my seat among a big family of noisy women. I was somewhat of a curiosity to them, but without a common language, conversation was minimal. There was a lot of coughing. Later in the evening they unpacked a picnic of home-cooked food, but their gesture to offer me some was an outstretched hand—the same I had seen from people begging. Confused, I politely smiled and shook my head.
Then the evening's unsolicited "entertainment" began, as one beggar after another processed past down the aisle: a lass of twelve or thirteen, bizarrely "Dickensian" in a grubby white nightdress, shuffled along moaning; a youth croaked what sounded like a prayer; a young blind man with a stick tapped his way through, singing some awful mantra; a wild man with a mess of hair and wide, intense eyes, shambled on the floor chanting "La lo, la lo..." Suddenly a woman dropped a card in Hindi on my lap, returning to poke me, and then another woman with a small box of burning incense, prodded me, demanding "Baksheesh"12 for her bogus blessing. There were also two little boys sweeping the floor with besoms of fresh green plants.
They all passed through the train like fleeting characters in a play, each with a cameo part, but using their particular hook to dramatic effect. India's rail system has been, in a way, hijacked by beggars. Whereas on the streets, they are usually stationary among pedestrians, here passengers are a captive audience for a kind of beggars' opera. It was by turns shocking and heart-wrenching, and I often felt drained or overwhelmed by its many manifestations.
On this overnight train, curiously, there was not a food wallah to be seen, only someone bringing a welcome early morning chai, which I sipped gingerly to the dulcet sounds of sneezing, coughing and throat-clearing.
The train arrived at Varanasi, City of Shiva, in the early morning. Another enormous train station, where it was hard to distinguish train travellers from those who had made their home there. All in some kind of transit. Many are refugees from the countryside. Farming families made destitute by landlords, loan sharks or multinational corporations flock to the cities in search of work. They camp out on the streets and in railway stations, with their pathetic bundles of belongings, training their famished children to fan out in all directions, to beg food and money. I gave some biscuits to one beggar boy, only to be swarmed from all sides by a dozen more.
The overnight train from Varanasi to Gorakhpur was like another continent—my coach almost entirely peopled by western and Israeli backpackers on their way to Nepal. My own compartment could've been a women's dorm somewhere in England! I was in the midst of ten women who were on a pilgrimage from London to all the sacred Buddhist sites of Nepal and northern India. Lumbini, just across the Nepali border, the birthplace of the Buddha, was their first port of call.
In a morning conversation with one, I learnt they were from Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, a group by whom I was introduced to meditation and Buddhism when I lived in San Francisco in 1994. Synchronistically she knew one of my teachers, Paramaninda, who was meanwhile back in London and now the father of a child.
The train was stationary a couple of times for an hour or so, but exceptionally, no one appeared with chai or food—except one entreprising woman who appeared on the tracks selling peanuts in their shells. She was soon swamped by hungry customers, and quickly sold out.
Gorakhpur station was the end of the line for me. A trio of trains in as many days, but my journey through India was not yet quite over. The border at Sunauli was still a bus ride away. Gorakhpur was grim, with one long, dusty road through, and it continued that way all the way to the border, town after town, for the next two hours.
As I stepped off the bus at the miserable border town of Sunauli, I was mobbed by cycle rickshaw drivers, desperate for a fare to the border crossing, yet another mile away. I picked a filthy teenager in an old jalopy. The beads of sweat ran down his face as he pedalled in the relentless midday sun. I gave him some fruit and water, and twice the fare he'd quoted, and thinking he was onto a good thing, he asked for double again. That was my last impression of India, before a fat, mustachioed official put the exit stamp in my passport. Nepal beckoned.
1. Formerly called "Madras" by the British, on the south east coast of Tamil Nadu.
2. Formerly called "Calcutta" by the British, in West Bengal, in the north east.
3. "wallah" is a Hindi word used generically for a man in charge of, or employed at a particular thing, eg: "kitchen wallah", "rickshaw wallah", "chai wallah." Females are "walli".
4. "vadai" is a deep-fried snack made from chick-pea flour
5. "samosa" is a deep-fried snack, stuffed usually with vegetables
6. "dal muri" is a mix of peanuts, beans, spices & chopped onions
7. "lassi" is a sweet or salty yogurt drink
8. polio: "short for 'poliomyelitis' means 'gray marrow inflammation', referring to the propensity of the poliovirus to attack certain cells in the spinal cord and brainstem. The virus enters the body most often by the so-called fecal-oral route—that is, from fecal matter taken into the mouth through contaminated food or fingers. In the mid-20th century hundreds of thousands of children were struck by the disease every year. Since the 1960s, thanks to widespread use of polio vaccines, polio has been eliminated from most of the world, and it is now endemic only in several countries of Africa and South Asia." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
9. A "sadhu" is a wandering Hindu ascetic. The word means "good man" in Sanskrit.
10. hijra: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijra_(South_Asia)
11. "Namaste": "The God in me greets the God in you."
12. "Baksheesh": From Sanskrit bhagya (good fortune), Persian bakhshish, from bakhshidan, from baksh (to give).
*Slumdog Millionaire 2008 by Danny Boyle