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 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.
I 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.