Indian Railways tickets are dirt cheap. The trains are crowded, uncomfortable, slow and unbearably hot. They are often hours, sometimes days, late. More than once, I sat in a train station for more than 24 hours, amazed at the chaos and incredulous that no one seemed bothered by it. The absolute best thing about the train is that you can run- if you’re late, or if you jumped off at a station to buy bananas- you can run even though the train has started moving, and you can catch it- grab a handle and jump on like some kind of hero.
This photo is taken from a train I was on, through the window. The windows don’t have panes of glass, just two metal bars across a large opening. At this station, the professional beggars took some time to dawdle, as all children are wont to do, and watched the workers work. The boy is a spray-painted silver Ghandi. (Click photo for close up.)
Many homeless people sleep in the stations. For the rest of my life I will remember a thin man and a thinner woman lying on a grey rag, spread neatly on the cement floor by a track, with the tiniest baby nestled between them, too tiny to be alive, I thought. They were defenseless and had to be exhausted to sleep in such a place. But they had nothing to steal, it seemed.
Ah, but still, they had the rag! You might think it was nothing…you might mistake it for garbage.
One day, a train stopped right beside mine, and I surreptitiously watched a young woman eat newspaper-wrapped curry and rice with her fingers. When she finished, she dropped the wrapping out the window onto the tracks between our trains. As I was judging this “littering”, a boy swooped down the track, grabbed the newspaper, opened it and licked it, sucked it and then tossed it on the ground. “Oh,” I thought, “Now it’s garbage.” Before my train moved, a goat came along and ate the newspaper. And I learned that nothing is really garbage.
Train robbers were a real threat- I was told they were bandits who would stop a train, come aboard and rob each passenger and then disembark. Once my train stopped in the middle of the night with a lurch. I rolled right out of my short bunk with a thud, scared the bandits had come. In fact, we had hit a cow and didn’t move the rest of the night.
I met families who brought stoves and cooked whole meals on the trains where we slept, talked, played games and music, and for some time, lived together. (It took four days to get to Delhi from Bangalore.) They told wonderful stories too. My favourite was about a woman who had terrible stomach pains. She went to the bathroom, which is simply a hole over the rushing tracks (please hold it ’til we get out of the station). To her surprise, when she squatted, a baby popped out of her, slid down the hole and disappeared. The train stopped, and they went back to pick up the baby who was perfectly fine, waiting on the tracks.