Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Long Train To Hyderabad

I gazed into the night sky, watching the rain hitting the awning at H. Nizamuddin railway station while waiting for the Rajdhani Express to arrive. I was glad my train departed from this station rather than the main station in New Delhi as HN was forty-five minutes closer to our house. When it rains in this city the streets are easily flooded and traffic, always congested, becomes a snarl as auto rickshaws, buses, cars, motorbikes all try to navigate through pools of water.

I have been riding trains in this country for fifteen years and it is always an adventure. Huddled with other passengers under the canopy I watched as porters pulled hand carts loaded with freight, coolies carrying luggage on their heads for travelers, beggars pulling on my shirt asking for a handout, hawkers selling everything from chains and locks for personal luggage to fruit and bottled water. At other times I’ve watched rats darting in-between posts to find food or playing on the tracks below. No rats tonight, too much rain.

As my train arrives I look for coach A3. I get on and find that my seat is in the middle of a three-tier sleeper and I’m disappointed. My ticket reads a lower side berth so I wonder if I boarded the on the wrong coach? I have plenty of time, so I quickly lock my bags under the lower berth seat and walk down the train platform. Sure enough, I got on AS3; A3 was the second-to-last car at the end of the train.

When I finally find my proper place a young lady had parked herself on seat number five.

“Would you prefer the lower berth?” she asked, hoping it didn’t matter to me.

“Yes,” I said kindly but with firmness, “I’m getting too old to climb up and down to the upper berth.”

You could tell she wasn’t pleased and I suspected I would have to negotiate more to get my assigned seat. I have learned in this country that people are willing to inconvenience others for their convenience. As a student of culture, I’ve learned the rules of how they play the game. If it were an older woman or elderly man I would have gladly made the adjustment, but if status means anything in this society, and it surely does, my grey hair trumped her youthful aggressive gender.

She did not budge, but I was willing to wait. It would not be until the train manager came and inspected our tickets or after supper that I would need my bed, so I sat next to another man, took out a book and began to read. The train pulled out of the station on time, 8:50 p.m.

I refused supper, as I was still full from the lunch earlier in the day. Sandy and I went with some friends to Kareem’s, a Muslim restaurant in the heart of a Muslim colony not far from where we lived. The mutton gravy, dal (bean gravy), chicken and roti (bread), was still heavy on my stomach.

After everyone had finished their supper the porter came by and distributed our bedding. Two clean white sheets, a pillow, washcloth and a blanket. They all looked like army issue bedding, especially the brown coarse blanket. The young girl slipped out of the compartment to wash her hands and I took charge of my space. When she returned I was making my bed. Knowing that I had the advantage she climbed to the berth above me without a word of protest.

For the next two hours I read, a novel I picked up for the journey. I seldom read fiction, but when you know you are going to sitting in one place for twenty hours you look for anything that will engage your mind, even if it has no eternal value. I only read Indian novels and search for those that can tell a good story and that which will also give me insights into the culture.

This particular book is about a young north Indian writer with two great struggles -- writers block and, more significantly, his loss of desire for his lover of fifteen years. To read the story you’d think he’d hardly have time to think about a narrative as he is consumed with reliving, in graphic detail, the passion he once had for the slender, dark haired and fair woman. I wade through the frequent salacious scenes, but more intrigued with the settings of his apartment in Vasant Kunj, Chandi Chowk, Lajpat Nagar and the social interaction of the players in his life. To read from the mind’s eye of another with the benefit of living in this same context, having touched, smelled and seen with my physical eye the word pictures he is painting, makes for engaging distraction.

As my fellow passengers settle in for the night, I turn off my reading light and try to get comfortable on the one inch shorter than needed slab that is my bed. The rhythm of the swaying train and the tempo of metal wheels on steel tracks lull me to sleep. Just nineteen more hours and I will arrive in Hyderabad.

(to be continued)