Thursday, September 20, 2012

Indian Railways: a crash course in understanding India

For twelve straight hours my home consisted of seat number 56, in tier AC 3, bogie B4 heading towards Kolkata and amounted to what I can only describe as shock therapy as one of India's ‘spoilt ones'. Starting right from the moment I got out of my air-conditioned SUV, the simple walk through the newly created security check reminded me of the herd. In automatic mode I was squished into a queue (I hate queues!), then my bags were flung into the x-ray scanner, without a second thought as to their contents, while the cop sitting behind the scanner was busy staring at any female form on the platform with looks that would scare Hannibal lector.
Once out of the x-ray check, I was confronted with Delhi's version of ‘mission impossible’ as I was afforded with a faint millisecond to pick up my bags and rush to the nearest exit or risk being trampled by the hoard behind me. My bladder of course does not enjoy any of this commotion, so the call of nature had to be answered. Enduring any public toilet in India is an adventure in itself, however if you have to use them in a railway station, your olfactory nerves will require some Israeli army training, if not do make sure to have a strong insurance plan, because this adventure is not for the faint hearted. Without even having to look for a sign, the distinct smell of urine directed me to the men’s room (on a practical point, thank god for the smell, as signs are non-existent). I will save you dear reader from any pictures of the pissua, which suffice it to say, had stains harking back to the days of the ‘Raj’, which I think was about the last time it was cleaned as well. After going through the horrific experience of feeling the drops of flush water mixed with my neighbor's water (how I wanted to cut my own legs off!), I was confronted with the seemingly innocuous task of washing my hands. Here I am confronted with a dilemma, weather to use the tap which runs at a drop per minute, or the one which is permanently flowing in a manner not dissimilar to Niagara Falls. In moments of doubt such as this, I tend to favour any waterfall, which reminded me of Holi (Indian festival of colors and water and an excuse to molest women Just as I walked out drenched, an antique 1949 model of a government employee pulled out his hand and requested ‘3 rupees’. Indeed, if you carry a backpack, wear shorts and have a crew cut you are taken to be a member of the English-speaking specie. But being very Indian, just one look was enough to scare him off. Isn't this how every day-long journey should begin?
The walk to the platform is not that difficult except for the fact that my flip flops are not designed for such slippery floors (designed instead for the jungles of JNU), so it is akin to a balancing act, or figure skating for the more sophisticated of you. I was rewarded in the end with a safe arrival to my platform as opposed to a medal and a podium. Once on the platform, I must say it was not as crowded as I had expected (to my German friends, it was still more crowded than the Munich hauptbahnhof before a Bayern Munich match, but by Indian standards less crowded) and I could easily stroll around thanks to the location of bogies clearly indicated with digital signs (back in the day the tea vendor, book seller and coolies would have been the only ones to direct you in the proper direction). As a sign that some traditions have survived, compartments a1 and a3 are right at the beginning, followed by d2 and d6, making me remember that as ever the Indian railway flirts with the theory of chaos, much like the rest of the country.
At the bookstand I pick up a copy of Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian, a wise investment at Rs 300, not only because it’s a brilliant book but because it will soon shield me from fielding idiotic questions (keep on reading). So as I get all set to wait for the train, I find myself a sweet windy spot with not many people. Having barely put my backpack down a group of six bearded men with white round caps come by and proceed to sit on me as though I were an IKEA sofa. One of them even rested his back against me until I stared at him with a fixed gaze conveying ‘bro I am not a pillar!'. So as the available physical space on my left side became cramped and I was about to make a move sideways a saffron-tikka wearing family (exclamation mark on your forehead denoting you pray to one of the 1600 gods of what the English call Hinduism). So with the Quran being read on one side, the BJP being supported on the other and my atheist soul analyzing it all in the middle, I entertain a swatting game with a few mosquitoes that have never read about Gandhi or heard of his concept of Ahimsa just as the train arrives.
Once inside things appear to be taking a turn for the better with a comfortable seat and an upper side berth located, I send a few texts to the ever-worried family only a few miles away, update status messages on various social media outlets, flirt with my lady love, and find myself actually having a good time. But this was not to last as a fifty year-old woman sitting across from me suddenly asks out loud "Are you married?" I blatantly ignore the question until she proceeds to repeat it in Hindi, Bengali, Oriya (it's amazing how we Indians turn into UN-quality translators when questions of marriage arise). To add to this scene, her daughter is sitting right next to her. I could almost imagine a Hindu wedding in a train with the ticket collector blabbering all those complicated Sanskrit rhymes the priest undertakes (he says Om about a million times). Back to my own diplomatic conflict, I had to find a swift and effective reply, so turned to my phone and showed them my wallpaper exclaiming "In talks as we speak"  (damn am I good at dodging questions). Before another breath could pass I had Amartya Sen cradled in my hands to the rescue. O how I love you Sir, not only are you a brilliant writer, you have also saved single men from the agony of having to explain why they are not married.
Soup arrives, followed by dinner, which is quite tasty and clean so no complaints from this traveler. Then again put meat on my plate and I am as satisfied as a bear with a pot of honey. Mealtime was followed by the complicated task of folding myself into the upper side berth. Honestly these trains were not designed with a man of my build in mind but for dwarfs and midgets in my view. My upper body fits in just fine, but where am I supposed to put my legs? Many permutations and combinations later I figure this is a pointless task and proceed to sleeping with my arms and legs hanging outside the confines of the mattress. Kicking and slapping every passer-by as the night wears on, I spend the next seven hours in what I can only refer to as ‘the experiment of the bear sleeping atop a tree branch'.
The next morning starts off rather slowly, if you can accept a blocked toilet at such an early hour. But the breakfast did not disappoint, with a hot omelet and toast, which was enjoyed in my acrobatic position as I was still hanging on to my upper berth, as the gentleman below snored the route away.
Meandering from village to village, slowly yes very slowly, (three hours later than expected) we arrived in Kolkata. As a final goodbye, the gentleman on the lower berth managed to have a conversation with me, which I had successfully avoided for the last twelve hours. He was kind enough to explain the way to my destination before delicately cautioning me that "All these taxi drivers are thieves. Just take this straight forward route. Get out take a right, then a left, a right at the roundabout, leave the next three roundabouts, take a left, and then a diagonal right. That’s it, super duper straight forward, no turns." While coming to terms with the concept of a diagonal right and the directions buzzing in my head, my feet met with the hot platform and I soon realized that I had survived this incredible journey. Beyond anything my ordinary Delhi day entails, this journey on India's famed railways put me in touch with a part of this country I seldom interact with but which I am very grateful still exists.  Backpack in tow it was now time to jump into the madness that is Kolkata.

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