Day 70: Train from Bharatpur to Varanasi
Wiping the biryani-based vomit chunks from her face, Marnie and I sprint for the train doors. We clamber onto the coach to find our spot occupied by a snoozing Indian family. The two more undesirable sleepers against the outer wall are empty. Marnie is feverish, frozen from the shivers. It’s 3:30 a.m. and the car is a frigid, draughty metal box brimming with rumbling snores and bodies cocooned in heavy blankets on their little cots. We sift through our packs with numb fingers. Marnie patchworks herself in cotton t-shirts and I throw a sundress over my legs in an attempt to cut the chill. Laying on my elevated bunk, I watch a young, thickly moustached man comb a boys hair until somehow, the rythmic rattling of the train rocks me into blessed unconsciousness.
A few hours later my eyes open and the first hints of daylight weasel through the shuttered windows. I hear a stirring underneath me and join Marnie on the cot below, attempting to conjoin body heat in such a way so as not to offend our conservative coachmates. She’s been back and forth to the toilet all night. We fall asleep with our feet by each other’s heads until the sheet of cold air shooting from a crack in the window forces me to move. I go to the area between coaches, where the exit door is. Pulling it open, I hang onto the handrail and lean out the train, and it’s like dipping my body into a golden bathtub of sunshine. The icy vice loosens it’s grip on my bones.
When I return to the cot, Marnie is sitting up pathetically, feigning interest in a hairy-faced guy sitting next to her who I recognize as the moustached dude from earlier. Even with appallingly terrible English, his persistence in having a conversation is unwavering. Marnie’s eyes flutter open and closed, her head bobs as she struggles to pay attention. I swoop in next to her and intercept his chatter the way a pro football player tackles a man before a touchdown. Marnie’s head hits the bunk in a grateful “thop”. I half-heartedly entertain his voracity to converse when I notice a guy in a toque on a top bunk to my right who is watching curiously. Our eyes meet and we giggle. The pain of this conversation transcends language.
Two cops in khaki uniform, rifles slung over their shoulders, appear in front of me. With dead-set faces they look me in the eye and mutter something in Hindi. I shrug.
“I don’t understand.”
Turning to the moustached man, the three of them banter for a few minutes until Facial Hair stands up and stomps away. Saved by the po-po!
I go sunbeam hunting at the coach door again. The guy in the toque appears shortly after. His name is Satbir, and he’s headed to Lucknow for a job interview. His best friend is along for the journey, and they both come from a tiny village near Delhi. I need to come more prepared for the train next time, he says, but I can borrow his blanket until he reaches Lucknow.
“Actually, my sister would be pretty grateful to borrow a blanket. She’s not feeling so well.”
“What’s wrong with her?” he asks.
“She ate something bad.”
“Did you get it from the train platform? Never eat the platform food. It’s really dirty.”
Duly noted. At his cot, Satbir pulls his mammoth of a blanket off his snoozing friend and hands it to me.
“I have a present for you, sis!”
Marnie nearly cries when I wrap the wool around her, and as she disappears beneath it’s chromatic folds, it appears as though it is but a fuzzy mountain that thanks Satbir in muffled Hindi.
The train rambles on, stopping every twenty minutes. Satbir sits shivering with his friend in the section over. He offers me a handful of peanuts and I sit next to Marnie, crunching them one by one.
A nineteen year old girl sits across from me.
“How is your sister doing?”
She’s already keen on the train drama. It’s winter break for her and her architecture classmates, who are all traveling home to spend time with their families.
I go back to the coach door to observe a real-life motion picture of India–the two cents of the train track–as it rumbles through farms and rolls across highways and rattles past slums.
The sun cuts through the haze. It slows into a terminal, and I watch the train station scene: men stand in clusters having animated conversations; a group sits in a circle playing cards and chewing paan with linked arms. I see Satbir hanging out the next coach door and wave from over the tracks. The train jolts forward.
“Get back in!” he yells.
I pretend to fall.
“Come over here.”
I join him and his friend between the other car. He asks me to share a childhood story, so I tell him how I broke my wrist ice-skating in pre-school when I got cocky on my skates, thinking I was a speed-demon. He tells me about his village in Haryana. Him and his friend Pavreet have been best buddies since they were little, and now, all grown up and married, are closer still. He tells me to promise that Marnie and I will visit their village, that it would be their pleasure to have us there.
“What is one of the best things in your life?” Satbir asks suddenly.
I point to the blanket-mountain on the cot.
“Yes,” he nods. “She is beautiful, and sweet, and innocent.”
How he can tell all that from through her woolly shield, I don’t know. He says he will miss us when his stop comes.
I go sit next to my ‘best thing’. Pavreet hands me a potato parantha, and Satbir comes back from the platform with hot chai for everybody. A man passes by on the way to the washroom–another local curious about us foreigners–and says hello, introducing himself as a doctor. I shake his hand and each of his stubby fingers is bejewelled in thick gold rings set with large gems. He invites me to join him in his seating area to meet his family. I follow him over a crop of outstretched legs to his section, where his wife and mother and father and uncle and sons and daughter all say hello. As is typical with Indian families, they are traveling by train together to their destination, which, like sis and I, is Varanasi.
They go every year to pray to the god they worship, Shiva. The doctor gets into discussion about his love of the English language, and language and literature in general. His favourite author is a famous Nobel winning poet from Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore.
“Who?” I ask.
“You’ve never heard of Rabindranath Tagore?” His tone is almost offended. “Our national anthem was written by him!”
And so, they sing for me. All together. It is beautiful and melodic.
“Your turn!” they scream. “Sing us something from Canada!”
On the spot, it doesn’t click that reciting ‘Oh, Canada’ could be appropriate.
“Umm…I don’t know! Oh, okay. Ahem.
Rock your body, yeah
Rock your body, right
Backstreet’s back, alright!”
If I had to continue the song, I probably would not have been awarded the round of applause and delighted smiles that they showered me with afterward. Apparently they don’t judge based on tone or song choice.
I go back to my cot, where Marnie is sitting up, looking like she may have come out on the bright side of the barfy biryani. Satbir and Pavreet exchange contact information with us, and when we reach their stop, we fold up his blanket and hand it to him.
“Keep it,” he says.
We refuse, and they say goodbye with puppy dog eyes.
“Please keep your word and come to our village.”
We’ll do our best, we tell him.
He wiggles his head, in true Indian style.
Our little friend with red teeth and high-pitched voice appears; a funny man who has kept us constantly updated of the train’s status throughout the journey. He asks how Marnie is doing. The train is ten and a half hours late now, he tell us. We may reach Varanasi by 10 p.m.
Ten and a half hours behind schedule. Not a single person has gotten upset, let alone complained. Hardly anyone spends time looking at their phone. No one even reads. Everybody talks to each other, and no one seems to be in their original seat now, having flitted from section to section, coach to coach like a kaleidescope of social butterflies who just flew the cocoon. In India, strangers don’t act like the strangers I’m used to. Maybe with so many people jammed into one land, they’ve learned to keep the art of conversation alive in even menial situations, to keep shyness from debilitating their social lives when confronted with a slew of unfamiliar faces. A neighbourly people. Often, men link arms with their buddies as they talk, put their hands on each other’s knees when they tell a story, much like is common for females to do in the ol’ western motherland.
Marnie and I move to top bunks in our now-empty seating section, where it’s less draughty and much warmer. I write; Marnie sleeps. The train stops and goes, but stops more than goes.
The doctor’s family move their luggage near the door. Next stop: Varanasi! The guy with the scarlet-stained teeth, who sounds like a Hindi version of Mrs. Doubtfire, pokes Marnie awake from her sleep on the cot.
“Excuse me!” his high-pitched squeak sounds.
“Where are you from, miss?”
Sometimes their curiosity gets the better of their manners. Marnie rubs her eyes.
It’s 1 a.m. Disembarking the train under the night sky, we hail a rickshaw by the front gate and bump along the deserted streets to a hotel, which is closed. At the next stop, the driver knocks on a steel door. After a few minutes, it rattles open to reveal a man in a wrinkled shirt with tousled hair. He doesn’t say a word as he trudges up three flights of stairs and leads us to our room.
It is flea-ridden, dingy, and the bathroom is ringed with mould and dirt. But there is hot water! Even that doesn’t kill the collective chill, but after a thirty hour journey, we slump onto the filthy mattress and fall asleep laughing.