Train to Patna

Remembering Here&Now

A second excerpt from Kalpana’s memoir, My Lucky Book – Being Lucky.

Allahabad train

For the trip we had booked a first class air-conditioned compartment with a sleeper cabin. It was not that classy but the only way to travel with some comfort. The whole journey was to take thirty-six hours and off we went from Pune station. Our first stop was Mumbai then Allahabad, where we would change trains to Patna. We had quite a bit of food and a couple of bottles of water with us. It was hot and the water was all gone after several hours. That didn’t bother Maahir, who could work all day in the burning sun without drinking more than a few sips. I always needed to drink a lot but soon found out that there was no water available on the train.

You could get chai, coffee, Pepsi, Limca, Fanta, or 7-Up but no water. My problem with soft drinks is that they are so full of sugar that I feel even thirstier after drinking them. Eating or drinking anything offered on the train or at the stations would most likely give you a dose of the runs. I was not ready to take that risk. Maahir convinced the conductor to send a telegram to the next station. I felt embarrassed as a special delivery of bottled water arrived, but at least I had what I needed.

The train rattled its way from Mumbai to the northeast of India. It stopped at Jalgaon, Jabalpur, and Katni Junction before it reached Allahabad, which lay on the Ganges not far from the holy city of Varanasi. That evening, almost twenty-four hours later, our train pulled into the station, where we had a three-hour wait for our connection to Patna. The platform on both sides of the tracks was full of bustling activity with people coming and going. Families had settled in for the night with their bedrolls. A couple wrapped in blankets like ancient Egyptian mummies were sleeping without a care for the noise and smells around them. On they dreamed. A woman prepared a dhal soup and cooked it on a small kerosene stove. Others had ready-made snacks, wrapped in a cloth, or had Tiffin’s filled with their favourite dishes.

Vendors of all sorts were calling out their wares. Chai-wallahs, fruit-wallahs, someone offering chapattis, and all added to the noise level. We found a small free corner to sit in and wait for the train. We also pulled out a snack to eat and enjoyed watching the life happening around us.

As night fell, it became colder. We were not expecting it to be so cold but as Allahabad lies in the foothills of the snow-covered Himalayas it wasn’t so strange. The train was due to arrive, but there was none in sight, and no conductor at the station. A local man told us that the trains were usually late but assured us that it would come. So we sat and waited. Some five hours later we saw dim lights flickering in the distance and heard the chug-chug of a train. As it approached it was already past midnight.

The train came to a halt looking old and shabby. After waiting so long, we were glad it had come at all. Few of the people who sat on the platform got ready to board it. It seemed we were almost the only ones waiting for this particular one. We checked our tickets and found the carriage and cabin number. After knocking on the door and getting no response, we tried to open it. The door appeared locked from the inside, and whoever was in the compartment wouldn’t open it. It was the middle of the night and we couldn‘t find the night porter. There seemed to be no other way but to get on the train and sit in the open corridor with the glassless barred windows.

The train was filthy and stank of old pee. I got freaked out by this smell and didn‘t know whether to get on the stinking train or not. Carrying my two big bags, I got on it but immediately felt sick from the horrid smell. So I kept walking along the corridor dragging the bags, and got off again at the next exit. Maahir followed me with the other two huge bags. As soon as I saw all the people sitting on the platform, I got on the train again. This roundabout went on until one soft-spoken Indian came over to me and said. “Madam, madam, please madam, it is better to take this train because tomorrow will be the same.” He told us that the military had confiscated all the available trains to transport troops to the border of Pakistan. There had been skirmishes since the British had left in 1947 when India and Pakistan became two separate states. These territorial disputes had escalated and both sides accused each other of violating the cease-fire. This situation could cause a serious military confrontation with hundreds of troops already at the border.

For us, it meant only the oldest carriages were available for civil transport and this was the cause of our problem. These leftover wagons had not been in service for years and looked like they were never cleaned. I love India, but everything is dirty. The cause could be that only the lowest caste, called the “Untouchables,” did dirty work. They clean toilets, sweep streets, do laundry and work with animal products. Other castes had nothing to do menial work and would not concern themselves. Walls or doors were grubby and no one seemed to notice or care that things were dirty.

Anyway, dirty and smelly or not we decided to take the advice and got on the train. As it picked up speed and hurtled down the tracks into the darkness, a freezing wind bit us to the bone. We sat in the corridor huddled together and tried to keep ourselves warm. We put on all our clothes in the hope of getting warm. We were freezing and Maahir looked forlorn with one of my scarves wrapped around his head and tied under his chin.

A couple of hours later at the next stop, Maahir finally found the porter, who opened our compartment. The first thing that hit me was a rancid bitter smell, a stench of old urine. My eyes rested upon a fat old Sadhu and his disciple sitting cross-legged on a bunk bed at one side of the cabin. I burst into tears. Maahir had kept calm all along and he was still calm as the Sadhu asked him what the problem was. We now had only about four more hours until we could get off this train at Patna.

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Kalpana is a retired typesetter. She lives in Munich and designs costumes for Shakespeare in the Park from second-hand clothes.

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