Journey By Train - India 1971
Do you ever travel first class? I hope not. Not unless you are a snob anyway. Well, let's face it, it's a waste of money, isn't it. Second class you arrive just as quickly and none the worse for wear. Who can't survive without a couple of whiskys and a napkin, and the company of a bunch of new-rich? You agree? I can see that you are sensible and Western educated.
You have never travelled on the Indian railways.
I caught a train once, from Calcutta to New Delhi. I bought a second class ticket, student concession, which cost US$4 for a thousand miles. Not third class, some comfort expected. Not first class either. Who wants to play pukka sahib amongst poor people?
I humped my rucksack to the platform. People were bulging out the windows of the third class carriages. Second class was jam-packed into the corridors.
"You can't come on!" cried the passengers. "There's no room".
"I've got to come on. I'm going to Delhi".
But they turned their backs, blocking the doors shut. The train started to move. I jumped into a first class carriage. It was pale green, I recall, spotless and empty except for a uniformed attendant.
"Hey! You can't come here," barked the attendant unpleasantly. "Get out! Get out!"
"I'm here mate, and we are moving ...."
"Go! Get!" he squeaked. "Into the second class!"
We eventually made a deal. At the first stop he lent moral support while I shunted, rucksack first, into the nearest carriage proper to my status.
That was the beginning of the real nightmare. For twenty-six hours I sat on that pack amid a forest of bare legs, beside the toilet door, with people crawling in and out over the top of me. Twenty-six stinking, agonizing hours, not daring to move, unable to sleep. I tried to read a book by V.S. Naipaul about a poor Indian family growing up in Trinidad ("A House for Mr Biswas"). It was difficult. The mass of legs and dhotis around me was in constant movement. Smelly feet would suddenly move over my shoulder, obliterating the page.
Every now and again the train stopped at a station, and sellers would crowd the windows from the platform, trying to sell chapatis and clay cups of weak, muddy tea. I could not move to buy their stuff, but on several occasions one of the Indian passengers reached across to the window for me. He was a kindly, middle-aged man, well-spoken, who looked profoundly uncomfortable in these surroundings.
"You shouldn't have to put up with this," he apologized, "Its not right".
"Nobody should have to put up with this", I suggested.
He shrugged. "No, but, well, this is India and these people are used to it."
He got off at Benares. I tried to give him the book. "You should read this," I offered. "It's a very well-written book by Naipaul ... It has a lot to say. You should read it".
"But you haven't finished it...". He was embarrassed.
"I have", I lied.
"But look, you haven't", he insisted.
"Please!", I said, thrusting it into his hands. "Read it".
And he had to go. The train left the book and the stanger in Benares. I had written my name and address on the flyleaf while he wasn't looking: Thorold May, Silverwater Estate, Berowra Waters, Australia.
"What's wrong with me..", I found myself muttering, as I crouched back amongst the dhotis on the swaying carriage floor. What could I be trying to expiate? The guilt of surviving this, and then going back to live at Berowra: the tasteful rooms, the garden, a private launch. The broad, calm, deepwater estuary, glimpsed between gum trees and sandstone hills ...?
But in a sense I haven't survived it. The stranger was, perhaps, the last real man on earth. I am no more than a name on the flyleaf of a book.
Journey By Train - India 1971 (c) Thor May, 6 October 1974