FF30: The train of dreadful night

Sarah’s view from the train floor. [Buy a print]

The alarm goes off at five, which is a sentence I hope to write as infrequently as possible.

At 5:30 we climb onto a small boat that rocks with each step. The peeling blue and white painted planks creak and shift as we take our seats. A dog boards the boat. I try to shoo it away, but this dog is not moving.

The dog is identified as ‘Gulu’. It is a known dog and it is joining us on our sunrise boat tour, yawning and stretching as we float gently past the burning ghats of Varanasi.

A few hours later, we disembark from another boat, onto the steps of Assi Ghat, burning white hot from the immense midday sun. We have a return train to Calcutta to catch, but the motion of two boat rides is hard to shake off. It feels like the quiver of water and diesel motor has drummed itself deep into our very cells with nauseating effect. It takes a rickshaw ride to reset our bodies. A sharp cleanse of horns and hard breaking to flush out the last remnants of the boat. We dash into the station, concerned that we are somewhat late.

Looking up at the departure board, it becomes clear that we need not worry. The train is three hours late.

The station is busy, the heavy stone of the platform pulses with stored heat and lines of people pace between platforms over the high bridges, ladened with packages of all shapes and sizes.

Finding no free bench or space to perch, we find a clear space on the floor and sit down. A woman in a bright red sari gently sweeps the floor around us with a broom of bundled twigs. I wander off to buy a bottle of thums up and find a small stall on the platform selling books.

I return with soft drinks and a copy of ‘British Social Life in India’ by Dennis Kincaid, first published in 1938. We settle in for the wait and read aloud excerpts from Kincaid’s account of the lifestyles of the British in colonial India.

The book begins with a description of Father Stevens’ arrival in India. Stephens, son of a rich London merchant and an ‘ardent Catholic’, travelled to ‘the mission-fields of the East’ in 1579, stirred by the romance of stories he’d read of Jesuits in China.

‘The voyage was long and wearisome, and it must have been with great relief that he saw at last the long green coast-line of the Konkan, islands of moist sweet grass, the red soil and heavy trees, and far inland the jagged line of the Ghats.’

We wait. The train is delayed another hour. I go out to look for food and return with a few samosas. The heat, the hard floor and the buzz of platform activity get increasingly hard to bear. Wandering around in a hot daze we discover a room, like a mirage, with air conditioning and seats, hidden on one of the upper floors of the station. We sink back gratefully into the padded cool seats. The train is delayed by another hour. I finish my novel. The train arrives after six hours.

‘Even if the voyage was only from madras to Calcutta it was as well to prepare for a long sojourn on board. That journey might take six weeks and contrary winds might blow one all over the Bay of Bengal.’

Incredibly, there is a service which allows you to pre-order food from various outlets, which arrive magically delivered to your carriage at a specified station. Being six hours late, we weren’t confident that our pizza would arrive. Tired and hungry, we were elated when, at midnight, a man dressed in Dominos blue arrived asking for Mr Tom.

‘The Cape was a welcome break in the tedium of the voyage. There was fresh food of every kind; in particular delicious vegetables and the Cape grapes that the older passengers declared were the best in the world.’

The ticket system is complex, but so is the system it serves and most of the time it works pretty well. On this particular train, two in our group had guaranteed beds for the night. The other three of us had a certain type of waitlisted ticket that allowed us to board the train, but only guaranteed us a seat and bed if other passengers didn’t turn up. With this type of ticket, it’s possible that you’ll only find out whether you have a confirmed ticket an hour before the train arrives.

Unfortunately for us, our tickets did not convert to a confirmed bed before we boarded, so our last hope rested on three passengers not turning up. Those passengers turned up.

Two bunkbeds, five people. I’d like to say that my various night train journeys had prepared me for sleeping bolt upright on a bench with two other people. What followed was messy. I got cross. I pleaded. I stole a pillow.

Sarah slept on the floor with cockroaches, which was preferable to her than the bench. I stole a blanket from an empty, but vigilantly watched, bed at 3 AM. One of our party had a nosebleed from the top bunk. Sarah woke up covered in blood.

I recalled a passage in the book where Kincaid recalls the memoirs of Mirza Abutakt who expressed discomfort at sharing a ship’s cabin with an Englishman:

‘What rendered this circumstance more provoking was that if, by any accident, the smallest noise was made in my apartment, he would call out, with all the overbearing insolence which characterises the vulgar part of the English in their conduct to Orientals, “What are you about? You don’t let me get a wink of sleep”, and other such rude expressions.’

The sun rose, shedding light on the chaos of our compartment and the awkward glances from our fellow passengers.

‘After the long months on board ship it must have been delightful at last to reach Calcutta, then the greatest and gayest of Anglo-Indian cities.’

Disembarking at Howrah station at noon; sweaty and delirious with tiredness, we decide that the next best step is food and we head to our favourite place, Jai Hind dhaba. The name, a nationalist slogan and battle cry, roughly translates as ‘victory to India’.

We tear exhaustedly at the delicious butter naan, scooping up murgh makhani and rich chicken bharta with sheaves of paper thin rumali roti.

That night, in the final few minutes of the cricket T20 final, the West Indies trounce England by hitting four remarkable sixes. Sleep comes quickly.

Fifty Frames Trains: part 3 of 3


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