Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Night Train to Varanasi

October 19th, 2009

I swung the heavy duffel bag over my shoulder, feeling it dig into my skin, and tightened my grip on my big brown stained travel purse, careful not to press my finger down on the rivet that sticks up like a tack on the strap. I found that defect in London a few summers ago and never bothered to file the point down, figuring that any purse-snatcher would have a deservedly unpleasant experience if he tried to take this bag. Now avoiding the sharp bit of metal has become second-nature to me. I think of it as a little joke between me and my bag.

The other women collected their bags from the back of the tour bus in the dirt parking lot of the Delhi train station, waving away would-be helpers eager to haul our luggage for a few rupees. We’re all strong, independent women here, we don’t need help. Even if in order to reach our train we had to climb stairs and ramps, dodging more people than there are at Disneyland on a Saturday in July. Fortunately, we left our heavy luggage at the Park hotel on Connaught Circle, since we’d be returning to Delhi shortly. My roommate lent me her light duffel, made of parachute material the color of tomato-soup, and I had it packed tightly with everything that wouldn’t fit into my now bulging rolling suitcase left back at the hotel.

In early evening, the Delhi sky turns lavender above floating dust that never seems to settle. The dust covers everything and smells like shit, but in a not-unpleasant barnyard way that makes me think of home. Unfortunately, I brought a head-cold with me from Oxford, and the Delhi pollution makes any mild ailment into something potentially serious. But all my concentration was on following our Delhi guide through the crowds and keeping tabs on Nissa – the oldest member of our tour - to make sure she was ok. We wove through people, waited, climbed stairs and ramps, waited, and shuffled down again, finally reaching our train car.

The train to Varanasi is a 12-hour overnight trip. The nicest cars have narrow bunk beds, 4 to a compartment, curtained off from the main hallway. Because of the size of our group and the general inability to make plans in India, we couldn’t all fit in contiguous compartments, and some of the ladies were adamantly against mingling with “the foreigners.” Beth diplomatically handed out seating assignments that were amenable to everybody, asking me if I’d be comfortable in a compartment with an Indian family – only 1 wall and 2 feet away from the other women. She said I seemed to be “adventurous,” a compliment I readily accepted, since I don’t see myself that way. I am a wannabe adventurer – an understandable complex if you knew my friends who fearlessly wander to all parts of the globe.

Before 9 o’clock, everyone on the night train sits on the lower bunks to chat. The other three bunks in my section were occupied by a mother in a sari and bangles; the father, a man with a bright intelligent face; and a very well behaved little boy playing on a hand-held game and asking his mother questions in English and Hindi. I sat down on the lower bunk with my journal, jotting down notes and filling in the blanks of the last two days, when the father asks me where I’m from, what I do, and how far I got in school (I have a feeling that my lack of a masters degree was disappointing). When I replied that I was a writer – I was only just starting to be comfortable with that declaration – he perked up. “My wife is a journalist in Hindi.” The mother joined in the conversation at that point – she is a journalist covering current affairs and health for a Hindi publication, and their son is an anchor-boy for a children’s news program. The father is a Humanities professor at a local university, and Varanasi is their home. What are the odds of sitting next to a female journalist on a train trip in India?

I admired the mother’s bangle - swirls of yellow, red, blue and green with reflective diamond shapes all the way around. She said “I have plenty” and dug around in her purse, pulling out two more. She insisted that I take one, but it quickly became apparent that my giant western monster-hands would not take a delicate bangle. She insisted that it would go on, and over the next three minutes she molded, squeezed, massaged and mangled my left hand until the bangle slid over and landed on my wrist (which is thankfully thin). I was amazed – there is a technique to bangles and this woman was a master. I accepted the fact that the only way the bangle was ever coming off is if it disintegrated of its own accord – I loved it.

The father/professor answered my questions on Varanasi, telling me that it is one of the holiest Hindu cities, full of art and culture. He and his wife also assured me that no one has ever fallen out of the top bunk on a train, and I suggested that I might be the first.

It was a very narrow bunk with no railing and feels very high up off the ground. I pushed my purse and sandals to the wall when it was time to sleep. I wrapped my legs around the bags and covered them and myself with a brown blanket provided by the train. Thieves walk up and down train hallways during the night looking to steal belongings from sleeping passengers, so it’s best to keep everything tucked as far away from the edge of the bunk as possible. I use the duffel as a pillow and covered my head with one of my newly acquired scarves for extra warmth. Only my nose peeped out.

An hour after lights-out, just when I began to doze, an official in military dress pushed aside the curtain and entered the compartment. He was checking assignments, paying special attention to foreign (white) travelers, but the Indian mother didn’t let him get half a sentence out before she started bombarding him with Hindi. If you’ve ever seen birds defend their nest against a crow, you might have an idea of what I was witnessing. For fifteen minutes she argued and berated, it was the auditory equivalent of machine gun fire, but without pauses to reload. Frustrated, the man left to bother the other passengers, and my defender returned to her bunk under mine. I have no idea what that was about, but even though the entire scene was in Hindi, I got the gist. It was about me, and officials who like to push white women travelers around, and that Indian mother was having none of it.