It is a scene that Bruegel might have painted in a fever or Dante reserved for one of the innermost circles of Hell.
On the unshaded plaza within the train station grounds there were thousands of people. Many were slumped over piles of baggage, lifeless in the oppressive heat and humidity. Others were wandering, apparently aimlessly. There were no signs of purposeful movement.
Once under the overhang of the main building, I encountered dozens of queues that extended sinuously out through the open doors and onto the plaza where the end of each became lost in the crowd. I bypassed them with the kind of authoritative strut that comes naturally to a New Yorker, masters of all we survey. Inside the station I could see that each line extended to a barred window in a bank of dozens of such windows. Each window had the same three-foot-high sign above it, announcing in red letters, “Enquiries.”
There was no train information board. If you wanted to know which track your train would be on, you were expected to work your way forward in the queue until you could show your ticket. Then, and only then, you would be told.
Clearly, there were dozens, maybe hundreds, of jobs involved in protecting and revealing this information one piece at a time.
“Need to no” was the rule.
Off to one side, a trickle of recently enlightened cognoscenti were dragging luggage through a narrow gate into the train shed itself. There, each person paused to be frisked by a soldier. I was so busy dealing with my complete ignorance and the implications of this horrific situation that I never thought to notice how women were treated at this juncture.
Beyond the gate was a table manned by an officer with a magnificently curled mustache that bespoke more authority than mere stripes or braid might convey. He was supervising baggage inspections and frisking.
Assuming what I hoped would be seen as an air of post-colonial submissiveness, I caught his eye, nodded my respects and waved him over with a gesture that was just large enough to express urgency but not so large as to imply arrogance or presumption. It worked.
He came over. He spoke English. My watch said it was 5:50. I told him I had 15 minutes to catch my train at 6:05. I asked could he help me find it?
He took my ticket in hand and stepped 20 feet away to the Enquiry window at the head of the nearest queue. Seconds later he returned with the words. “Track 11” written on it. “Yours will be the First Class car closest to the engine.”
He waved me through without frisking or baggage inspection. I was standing on the Track #1 platform. Track #11 is reached by walking one hundred yards down the current platform, up 30 feet of steep iron stairs to the overpass, then one hundreds yards along that overpass to more iron steps going down to Track #11 and its platform.
As I schlepped I thanked all the gods that exist in this land of many gods for the decision made back in Australia to abandon the large suitcase and leave behind two-thirds of my clothes, taking only enough for a change every few days. The “overhead bin” sized bag was barely carriable.
At the top of the stairs down to Track #11 stood another soldier. When I showed him my ticket, now limp with the sweat pouring down my face and arms, he waved me off to the left side, saying, “Engine that way.” I should have taken caution from his lack of a mustache.
At the foot of the stairs Chaos spread her tangled arms and smothered me in her embrace. By now the sun had set and the few working lamps spaced irregularly along the platform gave off an unhealthy yellow radiation. Everyone had the appearance of having contracted jaundice. My soggy ticket was barely legible.
I trudged in the indicated direction past five carriages; ten; more than twenty – and as I came around a bend that had hidden the line of cars from view, I could see there was no engine at this end.
I had come the wrong way. I was panting. My throat was burning. I’d emptied my last bottle of water more than an hour ago.
Cows wandered amidst people who were standing, squatting and even lying on the platform. Clumps of cowshit marked where the sacred cows had left a holy blessing. I plowed my crooked way back the other way, beyond the iron stairs, back to the far opposite end of the train.
There was no clock visible but my watch said I almost was out of time.
It was now 6:00PM. Platform loudspeakers were giving out a gargle of announcements that must have been unintelligible even in the Hindi that was being spoken. The thought flashed through my head that this sound system must have been supplied by the same company that installed the similarly useless ones on the New York subways. But the tone did sound both official and final.
Out of desperation I stepped into the open door of the closest carriage and sat down on my bag, shaken and shaking. This was not even a sleeper car, just another one of those chopped up into tiny un-air-conditioned cubicles with bare metals seats and bars at the windows. The stench of urine from the end-of-carriage WC made my eyes water.
I could not see how I would survive the 14 hours to Varanasi like this. But I was not going to allow this train to leave without me on it somewhere . . . anywhere.
I leaned against the wall, resigned to the hassle that would ensue when some train official, so far unseen in all my hurry, would find me in the wrong class and car.
A man came around the corner from inside the carriage, “Are you all right sir? Are you sick?”
I probably was, or at least certainly looked so, but I still had a reserve of defiance and anger. “Thank you, I’m OK, but I am damned lost and totally wiped out. I’m going to let the conductor worry about it if he ever comes.”
“Which carriage do you belong in, sir?”
I waved the limp ticket into his open hand. He held it close to the lamp in the wall.
“You belong in First Class at the other end of the train. Why don’t you go there while you can?”
“But we are leaving in another 3 minutes.”
“No, no. you have more than 25 minutes. Look here at your ticket. We don’t go until 6:30.”
He was right. I’d mis-read the ticket’s faint print.
My courage and hope were restored. After profusely thanking him I headed back the way I came, past the 20 carriages I’d already seen, past the iron stairs at the platform’s mid-point where I had started and onward toward the engine. Yet again, roughly 20 carriages to go.
The platforms were still a hazard course of reclining bodies and piles of impedimenta, and holy shit. I guess the bodies were waiting for a different train.
And there, at the very far end, where previously there had been no engine, there was one stuttering and murmuring as all diesels do. It must have been brought in while I was walking the other way.
The last three cars before the engine were being loaded with baggage and mail by dozens of shouting and surging half-naked men. However, there was no passenger carriage behind the engine.
I turned back and immediately realized that the windows of the next two carriages were fogged over with condensation caused by the cold air-conditioning on the inside. I paused at the first door.
There, taped to the carriage door, was a computer printout listing the compartments within, A through G, along with the names of the passengers assigned to each, complete with berth.
Joseph Edward Harkins, Male, 73, USA – Compartment B, Berth C.
I stumbled into the assigned space, washed in cold dry air. A porter appeared and pressed a sealed liter of ice-cold water into my trembling hands. When he realized I had not the strength to open it he popped the plastic top and offered it to me again. As I guzzled it down, a memory welled up out of my past.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, my mother dragged me off every Tuesday night for 9 straight weeks, to a Novena devoted to petitions asking the intercession of St. Jude, Patron of Hopeless Causes. She said it was the only thing she could think of that might save me from the the punishments that my decadent life of juvenile masturbation and science-fiction books to that point had earned me.
We alternately sat and knelt through an hour of hymns and prayers of desperation and frustration, choking in a haze of incense, as she pressed her suit for my salvation.
At that point I had been a truant for months. I was a “homeless person” before the term was invented. I would run away from home for weeks at a time, living on the streets of Manhattan, sleeping in alleys or in pigeon lofts atop tenement buildings along 9th Avenue in the area called Hell’s Kitchen. At one point I discovered the 39th Street stable where the horse-drawn carriages were put up after their work was done at Central Park. The horse blankets were fragrant and itchy but warm.
To support myself, I was an accomplished thief. I was never caught. My mother only knew I often had money whose source I would not admit, in amounts far beyond her own hard-working salary. I was the only one of my age in the neighborhood who had not been arrested and sent off to the reformatory.
She wanted me safe and in a good place.
Tonight, 60 years on, in the train platform in Delhi India, St. Jude paid up his account.