Nov. 15-16, 2011
Night Train to Mumbai
The 13-hour journey between Ranakpur and Mumbai comprised the longest and most challenging night of all the nights I spent in India, but in recollection it is a perfect example of why I am happy that I could not afford too many luxuries on that three-week trip. The overnight train ride was an experience I would not have missed for the world – although I will happily go some distance out of my way in future never to have to repeat it.
Our group of fifteen arrived by jeep at the train station in Ranakpur at sundown, about ninety minutes before our train was due to depart. We spent most of the intervening time buying food and water and using the bathroom, aware that such activities were going to be more challenging once we had embarked.
The highlight of the wait – and yes, there was at least one highlight for me no matter where I went in India – was that I saw a chai-wallah pushing his cart along the platform and knew what he was called because of all the India-based books I’ve read. Like the moment at the Red Fort in Agra that stirred to life through all my senses Jodha, the favourite (albeit imaginary) wife of Akbar, as Salman Rushdie had created her in The Enchantress of Florence, the sight of the chai-wallah evoked scenes in several other novels: most recently, Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower.
A “wallah” is a person who performs a certain task or is involved in a specific field – so a rickshaw-wallah or an auto-wallah drives an auto rickshaw, a dhobi-wallah is a laundry worker, and a chai-wallah serves chai tea.
Our guide Abhi had gathered us together in the area on the platform where our sleeping car would stop. He warned us that our train would be in the station for only ten minutes and we’d need to get ourselves and our luggage on board within that time. Our experience getting onto another train in Delhi and then off again in Agra had taught us to trust his words: we knew we would need to move quickly. I was burdened not only with my short, full backpack and my suitcase (the others just had full-length backpacks, which was an advantage in situations like this, although the wheels on my suitcase were an advantage when we had to walk any distance), plus I was still carrying The Albatross –– a pillow-sized object that contained a couple of ill-conceived purchases weighing 6.7 kg.
I was near the front of our group and from the moment I stepped aboard the train I was worrying about those at the back. The train car was jam-packed with travellers and their belongings, train attendants, and vendors and their wares, and the aisle was narrow. It was impossible to move forward without literally pushing ahead – and even doing that I feared we would leave someone behind on the platform. But then to my relief I saw that some of our group had gone to the front of the car and were now pressing their way down the aisle toward the bunks between us to which we’d been assigned. Each bunk had a number, and each of us had been told which bunk number would be ours.
I had booked private rooms throughout my stay (one of the few aforementioned luxuries in which I had indulged) but I had known from the beginning that I would not have my own compartment on this train. What I had not known was that there would be no compartments on the train at all. We would have a fold-out bunk in a crowded public car, and that was it.
Let me describe our third-class air-conditioned sleeping car. Down one wall against the windows closest to the platform were eight or ten ten sets of bunks, each three bunks high. The two top bunks in each set were strapped up against the wall, and before bed, all the people from the two bunks that were above the bench seat (which ultimately became the lower bunk) sat together on the seat with the person who would ultimately sleep on it. Many times, more than one person – often a mother and child – were slated to sleep on one of the bunks, which meant that there could be quite a few people sitting on the lower bench pre-bedtime. They passed the time by tapping or talking on cell phones, watching other people – the “locals” found foreigners particularly interesting to watch, probably for good reason – and eating their dinners: the families having brought food from home.
Across from these bunks set parallel to the tracks on one side of the car, there were crosswise banks of bunks, two per track-parallel set. There were three levels of bunks on each side there as well, facing one another, so that on the lower bunk/bench before bedtime, there could have been three or four or five people on each side, facing one another. Beneath their seats was their luggage and what didn’t fit there, they carried on their laps or jammed down into any available space on the seat.
In summary, each train car accommodated maybe 100 passengers plus their children and belongings, and all of their sleeping quarters, not to mention the attendants and the vendors who wandered up and down the narrow aisle offering food and chai and other merchandise for sale. The system worked perfectly when all the passengers had stowed themselves into their bunks at night, but before the bunks were let down, it was chaotic.
When I got to my assigned seat—which was a lower bunk—with two others from our group (Antonia and Janine, young Swedish women who were assigned to the lower and middle bunks opposite me), we found an extended family taking up all of the bench space on both sides of the compartment that we were to share with them. They included an older woman (50s?) and a younger woman (30s), both in saris, doling out food, the husband of the younger woman, their two children, and an elderly man in white. I jammed myself as best I could onto the end of the bench that would ultimately be my bed, with my backpack on the floor between my feet and The Albatross jammed between me and the aisle. Antonia and Janine sat down opposite me. There was, however, no room for our luggage, which blocked the aisle between us and the row of bunks along the window opposite. There, a lovely woman with her child watched us with kindness and amusement.
It seemed impossible that we should travel even two hours under such cramped conditions, much less thirteen, but at that point our guide Abhi suddenly appeared and executed one of his magic tricks. He assessed the situation carefully for a long moment, then started asking our seat companions questions in Hindi. They answered him by bending down to indicate certain items of luggage that were stowed beneath our benches. What Abhi was doing was asking them to point out which pieces of luggage belonged to them. Only one stowable item was permitted per bunk and it came to light during Abhi’s investigation that a couple of the baggage items under our bench did not belong to the people on our bunks. Abhi hauled these out and started wandering around the train car until he found their owners, leaving it to them to figure out what they were going to do with them next.
He then helped us stow our luggage underneath our seats. When he was finished, we were all seated where we were supposed to be, our luggage was all stowed where it was supposed to be, and miraculously, there was room for everything. I use the term “room” loosely: I still had my backpack between my knees and my Albatross stowed at my hip and I was jammed up against the young father. But still I was impressed and my heart filled with delight: yet again, India had showed me how it made order out of chaos.
I started to clap at what Abhi had achieved, and Antonia and Janine quickly joined in – and then so did our Indian fellow travellers until all of us in our little corner of the train car were applauding Abhi’s skill, and he was taking bows. I was moved: it was a bonding experience among strangers who spoke different languages. (As I may have said before, most of us in the group agreed that we would have had a whole different – and much worse – experience in India if it had not been for the street-smarts, intelligence, patience and good humour of our G Adventures guide Abhi [Abhishek] Chhetri. We were very lucky to have him, as is his employer).
At that point, across from me, Antonia and Janine sensibly got out their laptop, put on shared headphones, and watched an episode of The OC. I tried to read but it was hard, especially after the young father next to me got his children onto the top bunk (the older man had previously retreated to the opposite top bunk), arranged the women in his life across from him (so there were now four women on the bench across from him and me) and then proceeded to lie down with his stockinged feet pressed up against my left hip. He clearly felt entitled to stretch out — hence the crowded conditions into which he had placed his wife and mother or mother-in-law, as well as Antonia and Janine – and I didn’t want to move because I was determined not to lose another inch or two of what I considered “my” space. The effort not to jockey for position made it hard to get comfortable and read.
Finally, at about 9 p.m., Abhi wandered by on one of his regular patrols and I suggested that he ask my travelling companions if they were ready to go to sleep yet. He did, and everyone seemed agreeable. The straps that held the upper bunks were released, we were each given a sheet, a blanket and a pillow, we sorted ourselves into our bunks, then we went to sleep . . . or at least attempted to do so.
I found sleeping almost impossible because the grandmother in our group had gone to bed on the floor between the bottom bunk that I was in and the one containing her son or son-in-law across the narrow opening between us, so there was nowhere to put The Albatross and my over-stuffed backpack except to stow one behind my head and the other under my feet. It was not a comfortable position, especially since the slippery Naugahyde-type bench was not in any kind of sticking relationship with the sheet and blanket. Every which way I turned, it seemed, I rolled onto one of my running shoes or a water bottle, or heard and felt the crunch and crackle of potato chips being squashed into smaller and smaller bits.
Of course, thanks to all the water we were incessantly drinking, I also had to make a coupe of pit stops in the night. This involved extricating myself from my bedclothes, the Albatross, my backpack, my running shoes, water bottles and chip bags while edging my body down the bench and off the end into the aisle where I could get onto my feet, and then making my way either forward or back (past humans sleeping everywhere and in every position including several men upright just outside the bathrooms) to the toilets situated at the rear of each car.
On one side were western toilets; on the other side the Indian toilets, which are essentially flat openings in the floor. By then I had learned that the Indian toilets were usually cleaner than the western ones, so I used them and as usual admired the strength of the upper legs of the people of India, particularly the women who must get from a squatting position to an upright one several times a day. This is an especially challenging maneuver when you are also trying to avoid letting any part of your body or your clothing touch the floor.
It was during that night that the whole “living close to the ground in India” experience wore a little thin – for the first and almost only time. All I wanted was for there to be enough fewer people that I could stretch out and get to sleep. I could not even bring myself to tell myself that at least I had a reserved bunk to sleep on, that I should be glad there was a bunk at all, and that the car was air-conditioned, that I had not been asked to share the bunk with anyone else, that I had a country like Canada to go home to in a week, or anything else of that nature. But I must eventually have dozed off because when I woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of a man walking down the aisle yelling “Chai,” ”Chai,” “Chai!” the Indian family was gone. Feeling as though I’d just won a lottery of some sort, I put The Albatross on the floor (hoping someone might steal it), hooked my arm through my backpack (so no one would steal it), curled up in a golden light, and sank into a deep, sound sleep.
What seemed a moment later, it was time to get up, get organized, get off the train and walk into fourth largest (pop.: 12 million) and most densely populated (20,640 people per sq km) city in the world – and I found myself restored: both wide awake and eager.
(Check out more photos on Antonia and Janine’s blog. If you speak Swedish, you can check out the text there, too! Thanks also to two other travelling buddies, Liam O’Brien and Mark Allen, for giving me permission to use a few of their photos.)