This was not the deluxe train I’d expected. The carriage was probably 40 or 50 years old. Everything was the same shade of pale green one sees in the below-ground corridors of hospitals and governmental buildings around the world. I suspect that somewhere on this planet, perhaps here in India or un-regulated China, there is a vast blighted region dedicated entirely to the manufacture of this bilious-color paint for distribution to the entire world. Mountains have been leveled for the gritty mineral that produces this color. Somewhere, rivers run stained and shimmering with its sterile efflorescence. Generations of deformed children live just long enough to pour out another poisonous season of production. I’m sure that the name of this color in the language of the place that makes it is “ugly.”
Inside and out this train, the walls and ceiling and floor and fans and doors and latches and louvers and toilets and benches – all, all, all are this depressing institutional shade.
But there was a hint of air-conditioning. Not much, but at least the humidity was cut. The roaring ceiling-mounted fans made conversation difficult but when they were turned off the atmosphere soon became oppressive.
This “first class” carriage was made up of about a dozen compartments along one side of the car, each with a pair of facing bench seats running the width of the train. There was ample sitting room for two people on each bench and space beneath for luggage. The double panel windows were milk-colored because the seal between the panes had failed and the plastic sheet within had been “cooked.” Only a small section was clear enough so you could see out. A small table was fixed to the wall beneath them.
At night a pair of benches at head-height rotated down and the compartment became sleeping spaces for the same four passengers. There were no doors on the compartments. Dark blue drapes, when drawn closed, separated the sleeping benches from the narrow corridor that ran the length of the train.
At each end there were two toilets. One, marked “western” had a traditional throne type toilet. The other was the squat type, a forged metal plate set in the floor with ribbed foot places embossed on either side of an ominous, generously-sized hole.
That arrangement occasionally must have its “interesting” moments. It was obvious that waste was discharged directly onto the tracks. Surprisingly, the hot water in the sink was actually hot.
Of course, there was no toilet paper, but I’d anticipated that. In Delhi I’d bought a big, fat, pink roll whose remains must have puzzled any cows that strayed onto the tracks after we passed.
Shortly after we started up, the car porter came around and sold liter bottles of water at the reasonable price of 12 Rupees (slightly less than 25 US cents). The brand was put up by the India railway. I never saw another brand of water sold on a train or platform anywhere in India so I guess they have a monopoly on it. It was cold and welcome. I bought two.
The porter also took orders for “dinner.” The choice was between “vegetarian” and “non-vegetarian”, a selection that became all too familiar during my two weeks.
I tried to order just rice, plain white rice, hoping I could avoid the inevitable and inedible curry. No special orders allowed. So I ordered the “vegetarian,” thinking that might mean less curry.
When it arrived two hours later it was cold. The unrecognizable “vegetables” were a greasy greenish lump covering one-third of a bed of cold glutinous mess of rice. I was able to tunnel away at the nseasoned portion until subsequent forkfuls involved the taste of curry that had leaked down from the overburden veggies.
By foresight, my old standby traveling larder was available. At the Karol Bargh market in Delhi I found a seller of nuts. I bought a kilo mixture of almonds, walnuts, brazils and cashews for about $2. I never travel anywhere in the world without some version of this alternative. For days, it is a nutritional sound alternative to meals of dubious safety.
When I arrived in the compartment, my fellow passengers were already settled in. One, a gentleman my own age, owned cigarette factories and kept households in both Delhi and Varanasi.
We spoke of the declining market for his products. Normally, his son would have come into the business but instead was in the process of moving to Canada. I understood his sadness. I am blessed with five children and six grandchildren but he had only that one son . . . and no grandchildren.
He was wealthy in one area where I had little and limited in another where I had abundance. I would not change places.
The other two traveling companions were a sweet, lovely young woman and her 9 month-old-daughter, on the way to show the baby off to the maternal grandmother for the first time. The baby was smart and charming, a good reflection of her mother and an implicit comment on the love and attention she has been getting.
Around 9pm the porter gave each of us a blanket, a pillow, two clean crisp sheets and a small terry-cloth towel. He pulled down the upper berths and laid out the bedding. Lights out. The curtain that shut out the corridor was cut skimpily so it was never truly dark or totally shut.
He also collected 10 rupees for the dinner. It was worth every penny of it (where’s the button to insert a “sarcastic smilie?”).
After lights out, the train rocked and rumbled along, sometimes quite fast, other times at a crawl. The sweet baby was quiet and never complained.
I slept fitfully during the night. Around midnight we stopped briefly and the corridor echoed with the urgent voices of boarding passengers. One of them wordlessly entered our compartment and took an upper berth. When he slipped off briefly to the toilet, the tobacco man whispered, “I think he’s a Parsee” but I never understood the point of that remark.
At dawn I sat close to the window at the head of my bench, sipping water and enjoying a breakfast of my own supply of mixed nuts while watching villages as we passed through them. The mother and baby were quietly engrossed in each other.
Eventually the porter came around with glasses of “milk tea.” It was scalding hot but sweet and refreshing.
When the mother asked if she could leave the baby with us while she went off to the toilet, two old men vied for the privilege of dandling the baby but we peaceably settled for joint custody with generous visitation rights.
It should be noted for the record that the baby didn’t start crying for “momma” while *I* was holding her and singing to her. She was fascinated by my mustache. But once the other foster grandfather held her she let out a wail that brought the porter, followed immediately by the mother.
Back to the window. The villages we passed through were the cleanest and most wholesome places I saw in all of India. Most were clearly poor. Some homes appeared to be nothing more than tattered plastic tarps strung over piles of branches – but the grounds around them, the lanes and the paths were swept clean.
There were wandering cows and tethered goats and rambling hogs but no random piles of dung; that had all been collected, patted into elaborate shapes, and set to dry in the sun in carefully ordered rows for sale as fuel.
Around that time I realized that I had seen not one single chicken in any village in India. To add to the mystery, chicken in all its various forms of preparation, is offered in non-vegetarian restaurants across India. But I saw none of the live versions in my weeks on the sub-continent. I wonder where they are kept? During my two week journey, I did see one good sized duck farming operation, but even there, no chickens.
UPDATE: I learned later that the brand names of major American chicken producers (Perdue, Swift, etc.) are well known and widely distributed in India. That’s fine for the American economy, but I can’t help but be shocked that India relies on imports of this basic protein.
At the station in Varanasi, as we dragged our baggage into the corridor, my compartment mates and I parted with the briefest of handshakes. The baby got a kiss from each of her foster-grandfathers.
A maelstrom awaited me outside in the station.