The heat seemed to have a sound of its own. It hissed and sighed, pricking at my skin with razor teeth as we made our way across the scorched parking lot where yellow autos crouched like enormous beetles—their drivers waiting out the heat of the day, or perhaps hoping for customers. It was May. New Delhi was draped in its annual heavy yellow haze, the loos blowing hot air and lifting dust.
Despite the 115 degree heat, two teenage boys were dancing about with a steel rod and a stick, play-acting a sword fight for my amusement.
My husband, notably jumpy, said, “Ignore them.”
This is how it is for a woman in India, and especially a Western woman. It didn’t matter that I was dressed in a traditional kurta or that their antics were funny; you don’t make eye contact or smile at men you don’t know because it could be taken as a come-on, or a sign that you like them. Stay quiet, eyes downcast, and you’ll be alright. And never, ever smile.
I understood my husband’s nervousness, in fact I was a little nervous myself. It was our first time in Delhi, and the city had become notorious for a gang rape that had happened several years earlier. There was an uncertainty that lurked there which I hadn’t found in other Indian cities – although perhaps I was prejudiced before I even arrived.
We entered New Delhi’s main train station to get away from the two boys and found the sort of chaos that is synonymous with Indian life. It was exasperated by the fact that a strike was going on along some of the trainlines, and people had been stranded at the train station for days with no place to go. Women in colourful saris squatted on pieces of cardboard, men slept, curled up like babies, children ran about screaming and playing games.
The station stank of urine and the sweat of too many people stuck in a single spot without the ability to bathe. The heat, oppressive and suffocating, only made it worse. We picked our way amongst the squatters waiting, eyes glazed, for some news of their trains. Long queues trailed back from the bathrooms where men lined up at a row of faucets to throw water on their faces and fill bottles.
I pretended not to notice the stares as I followed my husband through the throng of people. Our train was a faded red beast, looking slightly unsteady on the tracks. We walked alongside the train, checking the names on the registries taped up next to the doors. The pilgrimage was going to be made with my Indian family, including in-laws, a few cousins, and an uncle and aunt.
We discovered that our berths were at opposite ends of the train. My mother-in-law settled in with the extended family on one end, and I, my husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law claimed the berths on the other side. Each berth was made to hold six people, and come nightfall the bottom benches would be converted into beds, and middle and upper bunks lowered above that.
Two strangers, both middle-aged men joined us, sitting opposite on the cracked green upholstered seat. They were dressed in the manner that I’ve come to associate with Indian men: polo shirts, slacks, and sandals. One of them removed his sandals and placed his feet—cracked and filthy from walking through the train station—on the empty space right beside me on my seat.
I tried to ignore the swollen toes and crusty nails. Still new enough to Indian culture, I couldn’t believe that he would be so careless about those around him. A few seconds later, my husband, who was seated beside the man, turned away from looking out the window and saw where he’d placed his feet.
My husband’s expression changed. Sharp words were spoken in Hindi. The man removed his feet.
Not long after clearing that hurdle, I saw a woman parading her baby up and down the aisle, allowing the baby to poke her head into the berths and look at everyone seated there. There were noticeable spots on her face and limbs, and again my husband’s expression changed. For a man who was raised in India (or perhaps it is because he was raised in India), my husband has a terrible fear of germs.
“That baby has chicken-pox,” he hissed to me. “DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING. And use hand-sanitizer.”
The train hadn’t even left the station yet and there’d already been significant drama. The realities of India, represented in miniature in our train car in the span of fifteen minutes. A thousand things are happening every second, every minute, of every day. It’s a country that never stops to take a breath, but barrels on at a breakneck speed—all of us along for the ride in a vehicle that hasn’t any breaks.
I turned my attention to the outside. Through the grimy window I saw people loading luggage, running along the platform, shouting to one another. On the other side, a family of four was settling into a berth made up of just two beds, and I wondered how they would make that work come night-time. Each car was only allowed to carry a certain amount of people, but there was no doubt in my mind that we were loaded beyond capacity.
It struck me as strange that so many people would be interested in taking a night train to Katra for a pilgrimage, but the scope and power of religion in India is something that should never be underestimated.
A blare of horns signalled that our train was leaving, and right on schedule. This struck me as something else remarkable about India; the general approach to anything there seemed to be ‘it’ll happen when it happens’ and no one ever appeared to be in a rush. Yet the trains were exceedingly punctual in a way that starkly contradicted what I’d already seen of Indian culture.
The red beast rattled to life and eased away from the station with a laborious groan. I sat back in my seat, a twelve-hour train ride stretching out before me like a long undulating snake gliding into the night.
The train chugged along at a steady pace and I asked, “It doesn’t go any faster than this?”
My husband laughed. “It’ll pick up speed soon enough.”
The city center, with its concrete buildings and numerous electric lines began to give way to a different sort of scenery as we neared the sprawling outskirts. It took an incredible amount of time to pass through India’s capital. This city of over 21 million people is 573 square miles and seems to be growing bigger by the day.
But eventually we were riding past miles and miles of garbage wedged up against the train tracks and floating in dense islands on top of black, thick sewage. Pigs, cows, and goats rooted amongst the discards, seeking out their day’s dinner. The shanties and shacks of the slums crowded together along the sewage river like diseased and sickly birds roosting for a moment before flying away again. Children, barefoot and in rags, waved at the slowly moving train and I wondered if they wished they were on it with us, flying off to a new place.
They probably did wish they were fleeing from their miserable reality.
Food and drink vendors began walking down the aisles, shouting out what they had for sale.
“Maggi noodles!” One yelled, lugging a vat of hot water and a bag of Maggi instant noodle containers along.
“Chai!” Another shouted. I had to admire their ability to keep their balance as the train started to pick up speed and shake like a rattle in a baby’s overly enthusiastic hands.
I was thirsty, so we waved one down and bought a bottles of lime soda and water. I finished off an entire bottle of the soda, and half of one of the waters, and soon regretted it because I had to pee.
After communicating this to my husband, he informed me that now would be the best time because the bathrooms were probably still semi-clean.
“Later, after everyone’s used them, you won’t want to go inside,” he said, grimacing.
I’ve always hated going to the bathroom on moving vehicles, whether it be planes, buses, or trains, because when you’re crammed in with a hundred other people using the same loo, things can get a bit nasty. But how bad could it really be? I reasoned to myself. I’d peed in lots of terrible places, I’m sure I could manage.
Jostling our way through the crowded train car, we went out into the vestibule between it and the next one. It hadn’t yet dawned on me that, this being Asia and all, the toilet wouldn’t be the standard Western version I was used to finding on planes and trains I’d ridden in other countries. I stepped into the tiny room and latched the door, and there it loomed: an in-floor toilet. Oh joy, I’d be squatting with my butt inches from the ground on a trembling train while trying to aim my stream of urine into the toilet itself.
I’d peed in my fair share of in-floor toilets, but had never attempted it on a moving vehicle, so this would be a first. Bunching up my pants to my knees, I rolled up my kurta and tied it around my chest so it wouldn’t fall and hit the dirty floor when I squatted. Every surface of the bathroom looked shiny and sticky, as if someone had even peed on the walls, and I was afraid of touching any of it.
My quads trembling, I lowered myself into position and let ‘er rip. Little did I know, I was facing the wrong direction and my view for the next fifteen seconds was of a mound of feces jiggling with each jerk of the train. When I finished, I high-tailed it out of there, returned to my bunk and doused myself in sanitizer.
Outside my window the scenery was finally changing. Neat farms with acres of newly tilled soil decorated the landscape. I could have been in Europe, or anywhere else, had I not known better. As the hours passed, the sun began to sink below the horizon, glowing like a bright gold medallion. Everything was gradually dipped beneath a thick stroke of darkness, and the train roared on into the night.
We placed an order for dinner (there wasn’t much left to do but eat and go to bed now) and settled in to a hearty meal at 9:30. Dahl, paneer, roti, and rice, some spicy, some not so much, made up our night-time meal and I had a hard time finishing it all off. Our trays were spirited away, and then a conductor passed through and helped lower the middle and top bunks for the night.
There was a brown paper packet on my bunk (the top one), and I ripped it open to find a pillow, sheets, and a brown, coarse blanket. My Indian family demonstrated the proper way to make a bed on an Indian train: one sheet goes underneath you, and the other one top. The blanket goes above the top sheet but, my father-in-law explained to me very pointedly, the reason for this was so that you could remain warm but would avoid as much body contact with the blanket as possible, as it was the least likely out of all the items to have been washed.
Our beds were made, and I was ready to climb in and get cozy. Grasping the metal bars lining the aisle, I hoisted myself up, only to get stuck in an awkward position with my butt facing the beds opposite. After a bit more manoeuvring, I crawled into bed.
I had my camera and personal bag with me containing my passport and money. I also brought my shoes up and, placing them inside the net bag attached to my compartment wall, I tied them together in an intricate knot that I hoped would discourage thieves. I’d been warned of thieves since I boarded the train, and apparently even my shoes could be up for grabs if left unattended.
Curled around my things—between the sheets but NOT touching the blanket—I let the train’s movements relax me. It had picked up speed now and was barrelling on through the night at a worrying pace. I tried not to think of train derailments and other horrors, but I didn’t have to worry long because soon I was fast asleep.
Have you ridden trains in India? What was your experience like?