A Tale of Two Trains
The Indian train is one of the cheapest and best/worst ways to travel across India. Each train ride is a different experience, especially depending on what class of car you’re in, making it a sort of microcosm for India itself. Making our way northeast from Hampi to get to Nepal, we took a sleeper train from Hampi to Hyderabad. Having a bunk all to ourselves, we passed out for the night and arrived in Hyderabad unmolested early the next morning.
Seeking to answer the call of our rumbling bellies, we sat down at a local eatery and ordered some chai as I dealt a hand of rummy to kill time. As I finished dealing, a small paper projectile struck the inside of my right forearm. Looking up, the eatery manager glowered at us and motioned for us to put the cards away, yelling that playing cards is banned by the Hyderabad government. Indignantly we packed the cards and took our business elsewhere, walking downtown to nowhere in particular.
Eventually we came upon a giant monument, reminiscent of the Gateway to India in Mumbai, announcing our entry into the historic Old City and its Muslim-influenced architecture. We stopped at the largest mosque in Hyderabad and admired the large white domes and marble tombs within the mosque grounds. Other than the architecture in Old City, there was not much else worth mentioning in Hyderabad and we decided to get a train to Agra that night.
Buying train tickets in India is no easy task. You must be registered with the Indian railway commission in order to purchase tickets online, which requires you to provide a copy of your passport and have a working phone. Since we’re operating without active phones and trains fill up months in advance, our only option was to buy general seating tickets at the station to get on that night’s train. They were also an absurdly affordable option, costing us less than $5 each to travel 1,500 kilometers.
The general seating compartments on Indian trains are a completely different world from the sleeper and first through third class cars. There are no assigned seats and no limit to the number of people who cram into every available space on the railcar. Entering the railcar, a throng of faces and awkwardly bent limbs greeted us. All seats on the ground level were overflowing with Indian men, literally one on top of the other. (In retrospect, it reminds me of the Southpark episode where everyone starts having gay sex and shouts “Back to the pile!”) Looking up, the elevated sleeping bunks (the same size that we had to ourselves on the train from Hampi) each occupied four people. Residency had been claimed on the luggage racks above the aisle seats with men resting on top of other passengers’ bags.
As some passengers eagerly rushed out of the train, we took advantage and tiptoed through the people obliviously passed out on the floor, laying claim to some very cramped seats.
Sleep was a rare and precious commodity that night. Every time we managed to ignore the awkward positioning of our bodies and slipped into sleep, hawkers trying to sell food awakened us at the next stop. Chants of “Chai! Chai! Chai!”, “Roti, roti, roti!” and “Saaaamohhhhssaas!” mercilessly pulled us out of our dreams and back to reality.
As the next day dragged on, we started to grow accustomed to the train and the lack of personal space as feet, arms, and heads resting on us no longer felt like an invasion of privacy. Using an outflow of passengers at the major stop of Nagpur, we upgraded to an overhead sleeping compartment that we shared with many different Indians over the next 18 hours. A group of young students joined us in our elevated domain (or cage, I prefer domain) and we shot the shit with them for a couple of hours, sharing food and limited conversation due to our language barriers. (The one boy even shared a very racy magazine in English called Debonair. A raunchier version of Cosmo, it had some fucked up sex stories in it that made us laugh as we shook our heads in disbelief.) As we bid the guys farewell at their stop, a huge influx of fresh faces fought their way into the train to join us for the final 4 hours of our 27 hour train ride.
Realizing before our stop that my hiking backpack was in the luggage rack of the adjacent compartment, I attempted the seemingly impossible task of retrieving it. By this point, the cars were so packed that any movement of more than a few feet meant bypassing at least 10 people. A human roadblock of people congregated near the exit doors presented me with my greatest hurdle as there was literally nowhere to step for 15 feet. As one gleeful Indian pointed out the obvious, “Englishman! You cannot get through!”, I mentally replied “Watch me.” and grabbed the cage-like wire on the side walls and climbed my way across the cars to a chorus of “Monkey!” below, lead by the same grinning Indian.
Stepping off the train and onto the concrete of the Agra train platform brought a wave of relief. Having endured the longest trip of our lives (after 27 hours you start to deliriously lose track of time) we found a hotel to crash for the night.
Coincidentally, as I am typing this we are on another train from Agra to Varanasi via the general seating car. This time, we lucked out and found a much less occupied car. Claiming some floor space, we read until sleep overtook us, sprawled out comfortably in the aisle. We have been making new friends, crowding around the laptop to watch tv shows as young kids play games on my Kindle.
At one point, two prostitutes sat down next to us looking to wring some rupees out of us in the most literal sense of the word. Instead we joked with them with one portly older gentleman laughing heartily at our good-natured jesting and cracking jokes of his own. When one of the girls gave us a wink as she flashed her tits, he looked at us like we were crazy when we repeatedly refused her offer for a train ride.
Back to the thought of the train being a microcosm for India…this quote from the book Shantaram (which I highly recommend anyone interested in India read) struck a chord of understanding in me.
“Now, long years and many journeys after that first ride on a crowded rural train, I know that the scrambled fighting and courteous deference were both expressions of the one philosophy: the doctrine of necessity. The amount of force and violence necessary to ensure to board the train, for example, was no less and no more than the amount of politeness and consideration necessary to ensure that the cramped journey was as pleasant as possible afterwards. What is necessary? That was the unspoken but implied and unavoidable question everywhere in India. When I understood that, a great many of the characteristically perplexing aspects of public life became comprehensible: from the acceptance of sprawling slums by city authorities, the freedom that cows had to roam at random in the midst of traffic; from the toleration of beggars on the streets, to the concatenate complexity of the bureaucracies; and from the gorgeous, unashamed escapism of Bollywood movies, to the accommodation of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bangladesh, in a country that was already too crowded with sorrows and needs of its own.”
There is caste system of sorts within the train reflected by the different classes of seats. You can stay in first class, like staying in a nice hotel in one of the big cities, and be completely comfortable and oblivious to the chaos in the other cars. But that is not the true Indian experience. India is full of frustration at times, but once you learn to surrender and accept that which is necessary, there is a beauty to the chaos. Having spent time with countless Indians in less than ideal conditions over the past few days has been a genuine Indian experience, and finally surrendering to the experience has been very powerful indeed. Each train ride is a journey taking us to a new destination, another stop along the way to meeting new people, learning new cultures, and most profoundly, discovering new facts about ourselves.