Holy Transvestites! An Indian Train Ride


Holy Transvestites! An Indian Train Ride

The train left at 9pm. I was headed from Bombay to Ajmer, where I’d catch a bus to Pushkar. It had been over ten years since I’d been on an Indian train and I wondered how –and if– things had changed.

A painted sign in the station indicated that my train was boarding on platform #17 but there were only two platforms to choose from and I was, to say the least, a bit confused. After wandering about for ten minutes, I found a station agent who scrutinized my ticket and then, with a pitying look usually reserved for the infirm and mentally-deficient, pointed me to my train sitting just ten feet away.

I made my way to seat 47 where I found at least a dozen young Indians squeezed into the cabin, staring back at me with wide eyes. “Ummm… seat 47?” I asked. A man in his early twenties stood up and explained that he was trying to keep his family together and wondered if I’d be willing to change seats. His ‘family’ seemed to be all college kids, but hey, this is India. Who knows?

My new spot was seat 16, just a few cabins down — it was a side berth, across from the cabin and I was pretty pleased with the new spot, knowing I’d have more room and would be able to stretch out and sleep when I wanted, rather than wait for everyone in the cabin to agree to fold the bunks down.

As I was digging through my bag, a well-dressed woman and a girl stopped in front of me. Both of them sported fancy new saris with silver trim and were wearing gold bracelets and necklaces. The woman stared at me for a moment, then put her hand out for money. I thought she was joking and just laughed –she looked as if she’d just returned from a fancy dinner.

But she continued begging, holding her fingers to her mouth to convey that she needed money for food. “But, you’re dressed better than I am! You can’t be serious!”

“Please, sir. Milk for the baby,” she begged. “What? The baby is twelve years old!”

“Please, sir. Milk for the baby,” she said and pointed at the girl. “The baby is twelve years old,” I pointed out, shaking my head and waving her away. She gave me a black look and left to make her rounds through the train.

Just as I’d finished settling in, a young woman from the ‘family’ approached and apologized — my new seat was actually #19 and it was on the next carriage. Would I mind moving again?

Gathering up my gear, I headed down the aisle and began the process again while smiling and nodding at the people in the new cabin. There were already eight people sitting there –in a cabin that sleeps six– but someone squeezed in further and made room for me by the window. This was going to be a long and crowded night, I thought, but as the train began to roll out, three men said their goodbyes and hopped off.

A second class sleeper is my favorite way to travel in India — it’s much cheaper than an air-conditioned car and provides you a guaranteed berth, unlike the impossible free-for-all you find in third class. Each cabin has six lightly-padded bunks –three on each side– that fold up so that everyone can sit comfortably during the day. Across the aisle are two slightly shorter bunks, sitting parallel to the train. The car itself has nine of these sections, with 2 toilets and entry doors at each end.

Holy Transvestites! An Indian Train RideI shared the cabin with a young couple and their baby, a friendly gray-haired couple in their sixties, and another couple in their twenties who, I soon learned, had just been married two weeks before. A man in his fifties quickly climbed into the top bunk by the aisle and never said a word to any of us.

The older man had a white beard that was dyed bright orange and a wide grin that revealed one missing tooth in the back. I couldn’t help thinking of him as a leprechaun and his constant laughing and joking only made the comparison stronger. His English consisted of “taxi driver, Mumbai” and “sorry, no English”. When I shrugged and said “Sorry, no Hindi” he laughed heartily and slapped me on the back.

The couple with the baby spoke no English but we got by with gestures and smiles. Their son, Krishna, was two years old and quite adorable. The newlyweds, Sanjay and Parul, were from Bombay and spoke flawless English — we chatted off and on while everyone debated the sleeping arrangements in Hindi. Both the older couple and the newlyweds wanted the top bunks and it took over an hour to sort it all out. In the end, this was settled by the older couple climbing up to the top bunks and refusing to move.

I ended up in the side bunk after all and found that it wasn’t quite the ideal spot I’d hoped.

I ended up in the side bunk after all and found that it wasn’t quite the ideal spot I’d hoped. It was about three inches too short so I couldn’t stretch my legs out without hanging my feet in the aisle. People would move up and down the aisles all through the night, so it really wasn’t a very restful option.

The lights were turned off (after more debate) around 11:00 and I slid into my sleeping bag, slipped my Lonely Planet guide into a stuff sack as a pillow (my fleece jacket was buried in my main pack which was buried with the other luggage in the cabin) and tried to get some sleep.

Normally, I find the steady rocking motion and repetitive ‘clack clack’ of a train ride to be relaxing and sleep pretty well. That wasn’t the case tonight, as every shake and judder of the train caused my head to bump into the wall. It was like hitting the headboard during really hot sex but without the hot sex (which is, of course, the best part). Every hour or so, the train would pull into a brightly-lit station or stop in the middle of nowhere to allow another, faster train to pass by with a roar that shattered the deepest slumber.

I managed to get four, maybe five hours of real sleep during the night in short bursts of thirty minutes or so and awoke the next morning feeling thoroughly unrefreshed. I had a headache, desperately needed coffee and –worst of all– I had to use the toilet.

Years ago, I had taken a grueling 23 hour train ride and still have far-too vivid memories of the horror I found in the restroom.

During my last visit to India, I had taken a grueling 23 hour train ride and still have far-too vivid memories of the horror that greeted me that first morning. The toilet itself was a standard stainless steel stall with a simple hole in the middle and two raised footpads. But after heavy use during the night, I had been stunned to find crap –literally– everywhere.

The floor of the stall had been completely covered, as were the footpads and a few wild shots had ended up near the sink on the other side of the room. It was even on the walls, smeared so high that I had found myself wondering if a circus was onboard and searching for the trapeze. I’d ended up holding mine in for the next seven hours and left the train bent double and cross-eyed.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I found myself opening the door and peeking slowly inside. To my surprise, everything was spotless. Clean, shiny stainless steel greeted me and a nice breeze blew in through a vent in the wall. I could see the tracks passing by beneath the hole (kind of kills the romance of walking along the railroad tracks, doesn’t it?) and quickly did my business and returned to my seat.

Holy Transvestites! An Indian Train Ride

At the next stop, the vendors came on board and started making their rounds up and down the train. For five or ten rupees, you could buy chai, coffee, water, sodas, nuts, samosas, soap, shoeshines, chains, locks, zipper pulls, Hindi magazines, used newspapers, sweets and more. The shoeshine boys would return every five minutes to see if I’d changed my mind. At each stop, the current group would get off to go back the other direction and a new batch would climb aboard with a different selection.

Interspersed with the vendors were the beggars and –unlike the woman from the night before– most of these really needed help. Old blind men and women were led along by children and a shirtless hunchback crawled by pushing his alms dish ahead of him, followed by men with no arms, lepers missing hands or feet, and ancient wrinkled widows. I tried to give each something but soon ran out of coins and small bills and had to wave the rest along with an apologetic smile.

What the hell is this? An Indian stripper?

I had my head in a book when I saw out of the corner of my eye that a young woman was standing in the aisle, talking to the newlyweds. Her back was to me and as I looked up, I quickly noticed that she was wearing a very revealing outfit, with her ass nearly hanging out of her skirt. What the hell is this? An Indian stripper?

She was half-singing something in Hindi like a barker at a carnival and clapping her hands, occasionally saying “ten rupees” in English. I still couldn’t see her face but I saw that she had really strong hands — it looked liked she cracked walnuts for a living. She turned to her left to pat someone on the shoulder, revealing a large Adam’s apple and a five-o’clock shadow (five o’clock last Thursday, I believe).

She was a hijra, considered by many to be neither male nor female, but a third sex. Usually born a man, hijras dress and act as women and their blessings are believed to bring good luck and health. As with transgender people the world over, they face considerable discrimination from the rest of society and lead pretty difficult lives. Many are devotees of Ardhanari, a god who is half Shiva and half Parvati, thus both male and female. Historically, most were castrated at puberty but that practice seems to be dying out in modern times.

She turned to me and winked, squeezing my shoulder and demanding ten rupees in a playful, bossy way. I leaned over and raised an eyebrow to Sanjay to see if he was contributing. He had a grim look on his face and shook his head no, earning him an elbow in the ribs from Parul.

I had just a single ten rupee note left that I had been saving for a snack at the next stop but gave in and handed it over. She smiled wide, revealing crooked lipstick-smeared teeth, palmed the bill, placed it on my head and said a brief prayer, then slapped my forehead with a flourish. I’ve just been blessed by Benny Hill, I thought. In drag.

They’re very powerful and their prayers are answered quickly… Not that I believe it, of course.”

She knew how to work a room and had soon collected notes from everyone in our section. She leaned over Parul for a full minute and intoned a long whispered prayer, then moved onto the next section. I asked Parul what had happened and she said “I asked her for a prayer for our marriage. They’re very powerful and their prayers are answered quickly.” After a long pause, she added self-consciously “Not that I believe it, of course.”

From my spot by the aisle, I could see the hijra working the next group, collecting bills and clapping while she bantered with the men. One older man with his back to me refused to contribute, crossing his arms and shaking his head. After a few words back and forth, she pulled up her skirt and stood there with her crotch just two feet from his face.

I nearly fell off the bench. For a moment, I thought “Wait… she really is a woman…” but then I realized she had tucked her goods between her legs — with just a glance, you couldn’t tell. The old man was now waving his hands and frantically fishing through his pocket for ten rupees. After he paid up, she pushed her skirt back down.

Now, I was shocked to see pubic hair in India but Parul was absolutely stunned. Her jaw dropped and she quickly looked away and sat unmoving for five minutes, staring into space with watery eyes. Nudity is, of course, a huge taboo here — I think some people have never seen themselves naked, let alone someone else. Seeing how it affected this young, college-educated urbanite, I can only imagine what the old guy was feeling.

The rest of the trip was blessedly uneventful, with more touts and beggars passing through after each stop. I found it remarkable that a leper with missing limbs could literally crawl through the train and garner a few small coins from maybe a quarter of the passengers, while a man in a dress could easily squeeze ten rupees out of nearly everybody with the threat of exposing his fictional genitalia.

India is one hell of a ride. Some things never change.

60 comments on “Holy Transvestites! An Indian Train Ride

  1. I’ve honestly never even thought about traveling to India except perhaps to Goa, but your stories have made me reconsider. What a wonderfully well-told vignette!
    Marsha recently posted..Comment on Weekend Intelligence- December 11-12- 2010 by MarshaMy Profile

  2. I love the train, any train, any where. Even just subways. It`s always an adventure with the strangest characters and I knew you of all people would have a good story.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Disdain and Loathing in MancoraMy Profile

  3. Dude, I love it. I think this story would be a perfect candidate for a premium story. I love all of the details. I would definitely be happy to pay to hear your wild stories just so you could get yourself into more funny/akward situations for us all to hear about. :)

    I think there are a lot of people who would agree :) Keep it up man!
    Nick recently posted..The Unconventional Book ExchangeMy Profile

    • Thanks, brother. I thought you were kidding with the ‘premium’ idea. I’d never really given it thought. Will have to put on my thinking hat now…

  4. Train is the way to go – same how I feel about exploring a city on bikes!

  5. I would agree with that last sentence…India is one hell of a ride. Loved this post, didn’t want it to end!
    Andi recently posted..Chile- Argentina &amp Uruguay- Day 1My Profile

  6. very detailed imagery. i was in india but never experienced the trains :( thanks for sharing and i love your pictures!
    Janet recently posted..Body IntegrationMy Profile

  7. Pirate63 on said:

    Great read Wes,were was your camera lol,we have had horror train journeys,but when we look back on them,they made our holidays
    Keep up the good work

    • Yeah, I really didn’t get any shots alas. Same with my last ride — I was up early but my camera was buried under the bunk where someone was sleeping. Missed some really nice shots…

  8. Love the images here, Wes. I know I need to hit India in a big way at some point in the future, but just need to do it. Reading your India posts are an inspiration.
    Michael Hodson recently posted..Cold Showers from HellMy Profile

  9. In sleeper class that is what you will run into are a lot of beggars, but really no big deal they have no choice. Three tier is well worth the money and sometimes two tier, it really depends on how long the train trip is going to be.

    The trick to traveling India is to figure out the train system, though. Sounds like you have it down.
    Shawn recently posted..Train Ride to the Araku Valley—IndiaMy Profile

    • Thanks for the comment, Shawn. Two tier is nice when you can find it — the trains tend to be pretty full, so it’s often a case of taking what you can get :/

  10. Another great story Wes! The trains in India are something else. Chai, Chai, Chai… Chai, Chai!!
    Cam recently posted..Things to do in Dublin- IrelandMy Profile

  11. Great stuff, Wes. The “Benny Hill in drag” line is priceless.

    Despite your vivid and descriptions and the wonderful time you seem to be having, I still have no great urge to hurry to India. What’s wrong with me?

    • Wassup, attapue? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you — India is not for everybody. It can be really difficult travel at times…

  12. “it looked liked she cracked walnuts for a living” you crack me up! it sounds like you have enough Indian train stories to fill a book…
    joshywashington recently posted..How to Get a Job Teaching English in Saigon- 5 Easy StepsMy Profile

  13. What a wonderful well told story – I felt like I was back in India on that train with you! Seems like I missed out on a lot of fun by travelling AC.

    • thanks a lot, Jayne :) Second class is a real trip — you get to see a lot and meet all kinds of people. That said, AC is a *lot* more comfortable.

  14. casa de hamilton pool on said:

    great stuff as always!

  15. I guess there are “Leslie’s” everywhere!!! Great story Wes… miss you!

  16. Great story! It makes me want to visit India, inspite of the lesser aspects of such a beautiful country (I was once in a 36 hour ride from Istambul to Hungary, the bathroom was quite the same except there was, unfortunatly, a toilet and the bathroom ceiling had crumbled down, so you had to do your business while holding the ceiling) but that’s what makes story material, right…?!

    Holy transvestites… ahaha! nice one!

    Good travels, brother!
    Nuno Moreiras recently posted..Day 15 Itera de la Vega Wavering SunMy Profile

    • Oh man, holding the ceiling up while doing your business is pretty tricky. I just met a guy who had to use an outhouse in Central America — it was a tiny thing and there was a huge wasp nest inside. I don’t think he bothered with reading the newspaper on that trip…

  17. Good read. Those Indian trains are great — complete and total adventure every time. The hijras are excellent beggars, never seen a group of people who could pass through a train and take out so many coins.
    Wade | VagabondJourney.com recently posted..6 Tips for Free Accommodation When TravelingMy Profile

  18. Holy smokes that was a fantastic narration! Wes, there are so many things that we, having grown up in India, simply don’t notice! Whenever I revisit India as a tourist, I see things I’ve never noticed before! I did find that toilets were cleaner and coaches were swept more often, but the overcrowding has gotten worse. Thanks Wes! :-)
    Priyank recently posted..Stolovaya No 57My Profile

  19. I’ve been looking forward to experiencing the trains in India for ages and this post just completely cemented in how much I want to go. The on-time but chaotic & first come first served no matter if you’ve booked it or not is gonna be brilliiant!
    Will recently posted..Goodbye 2010 &gt Hello 2011! Time for self discovery by solo travel!My Profile

    • Heh, be careful what you wish for ;) But seriously, Indian trains are amazing. Reserve a sleeper and you’re guaranteed a berth, though the seats will probably be packed during the day. When you start to burn out, a First-Class ticket is a nice break but overall I prefer second-class — you’ll meet a lot more people that way…

      Thanks for the comment and best of luck on your trip!

  20. Wow, great story. Visiting India kinda makes me nervous, still haven’t decided if I want to, but this makes it sound entertaining and worth the experience.
    Mike recently posted..Kowalski Travels- Whitehaven BeachMy Profile

    • It can be frustrating and tiring at times, but it’s equally rewarding. I say go for it. If you find yourself overwhelmed, pay a little more for a fancier hotel and first-class trains until you rest up…

  21. I love train rides but Wow – not experienced stories like this. A fascinating read and very educational about the culture in India.
    Jeremy B recently posted..Photos of the valleyMy Profile

  22. Holy crap…this was a great read. Loved every word of it!! Great story, fantastic description….simply awesome!
    Lisa @chickybus recently posted..Mt Nemrut- Turkey- 5 Reasons to Visit This Mini Easter IslandMy Profile

  23. Hilarious! Still can’t work out if the tranny’s flashing gambit there was intended as a threat or a promise!

  24. Fun story Wes! Trains are always so full of interesting characters! When I was a kid traveling with my parents in Peru, some vendor who carried a pot of soup on her head almost tried to pass her baby off on us!
    Aaron @ Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures recently posted..“There’s No School Today- The Government’s Been Overthrown”My Profile

  25. Yep, India is one hell of a ride! Loved reading this piece – cheers
    Abi recently posted..The Kindness of StrangersMy Profile

  26. Wow what an amazingly well told story! I just happened to stumble upon it but so glad I did! I’ve been on a few crazy train rides but your hijra takes the cake!!
    Aly recently posted..Update on WindsurfingMy Profile

  27. Wes,

    I´m currently on my longest backpacking tour of Asia yet (over a year this time) and if I had to pinpoint the most vivid/compelling event(s) of my trip it would come down to my extensive train rides across India. It felt like an ongoing spectacle of events both inside & outside of the train without a single dull moment. I did most of my trips in the lower class berth and at times it was so packed with illegals that bodies were nearly dangling off of the ceiling :P Anyhow, I created seven videos of the entire experience on my youtube channel mostly with high speed footage. It features nothing less than monkeys falling down from trees, cows rummaging through garbage cans, a man defecating on a nearby track along with some beautiful sunset/sunrises and slums. If you ever feel the desire to relive some of those crazy train moments check it out sometime:
    Nomadic Samuel (Samuel Jeffery) recently posted..Children of Asia Part 1 – Featured Video – April 30- 2011My Profile

  28. Garreth on said:

    Really enjoyed the story. It reminds me why I usually take ear plugs when travelling.

  29. What a good read. You are a good writer and story teller. I read your each and every word some of them twice. I enjoyed it too much I didn’t want it to end. Have not been on Indian trains for about 10 years now, time to hop on those Indian trains with full of entertainments again:-)

  30. This makes me want to go back to India!

  31. Hahaha! Loved this one! We usually avoid hijras, and pay up or ignore them- whatever seems to work more. I’ve heard of the skirt lifting, but never seen one myself, thank God :P
    Surya Bhattacharya recently posted..A Long Overdue Post- Auschwitz Extermination CampMy Profile

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