10.04.2009

From Kanpur to Delhi: An Evening with Indian Railway

Fellowship, News

By Gaurav Madan
August ’08 Fellow

I arrived at Kanpur Central Station a little before 10 pm. My train was scheduled to leave at 10:45 and I was ready to be on my way. I approached the board with all the trains and departure times and such to see that my train was delayed, until 3:35 am. I stood in front of that constantly flickering board for half an hour in the hopes that my train’s departure time would miraculously change to some time before 3. But this was no time for miracles, at least not yet. As I paced around the station and kept checking the board all that happened was I became more familiar with my new home for the next several hours, my train got delayed even further, 4:35 am. So I paced around some more. Eventually I walked to the platform that this alleged train was supposed to leave from and, well, I sort of walked around for a bit longer… Almost every semi-clean spot was taken, by someone’s luggage, someone’s child or someone’s body. Underneath the stairs leading up to the walkway the situation was much the same with hundreds of people resigned to their wait – smiling and chatting, furiously eating, or simply taking the moment as it was just then and there, staring off, their thoughts taking them to other realities far from the platforms of Kanpur Central.

Train stations in this country are a unique place, unlike no other. I guess that’s what unique means. More people than you could imagine fitting into one space comfortably, from all sorts of backgrounds – religious and economic, social and cultural, speaking different languages, carrying all sorts of things, going about their own business. Polite, congenial, passing one another by, with a host of exceptions included. It’s a sort of glimpse at the cross-sections that make up this masala called India. Migrant laborers, traveling college students, wide-eyed foreigners, farmers, and businessmen and women. Saris, dhotis, jeans, t-shirts, kurtas and pyjamas. The young, the old, the rich, the poor, the people who look happy to be on their way, and those resigned to whatever fate awaits them. In-credible India.

I finally found a spot for myself on the walkway above the platforms. I spread out my chaadar on the least paan-stained part of the walkway, took off my chappals, and lay down. So this was my fate for the evening. To be honest I was pretty annoyed, and tired. I had been counting down the hours until my train was to leave and it would only make sense that my train was delayed in this “lets-push-Gaurav-to-the-brink-of-his-limits” type way. It could be worse, I tried to reason, as I stuck out my head in an attempt to swallow as much of the breeze from my vantage point above the rail tracks. And honestly what else could I do? Below I saw the trains come and go, people hop on and off, shove themselves and their luggage through the crowds, and carry everything and anything imaginable along with them. Above was the non-stop racket of the announcement system, alternating in Hindi and English, informing all of us, every two seconds, which trains were arriving when, on which tracks, and which trains were further delayed – mine included, until 5 am now.

It was almost funny that I was stuck in this station, until who knew when. Almost. It was sort of like just what I deserved for spending so much energy anticipating my departure. In any case I figured if I was planning on waiting till 4:35, another half hour wasn’t so bad. The reality was that I really had no choice. So there I was, one of the huddled masses (the huddled molasses, my new band name) taking it all in, with no rush to be anywhere, because right there and then, I really had no realistic place to go. The whole walkway was lined with sleepers and dozers and watchers and listeners like myself. I quietly absorbed the scene around me. People were covered from head to toe, like mummies, underneath their shawls. Some were passed out on top of their luggage with no regard for whatever may be on the hard and dirty floor beneath them. When I got tired of watching my comrades at my side, I would examine those with purpose rushing by. Here once again was the intersection of badly dyed blonde heads and vibrant traditional outfits. From time to time I would read my book, then stop to once again gaze at the travelers throughout the station. Somewhere between all of these musings and activities (we like to call it time-pass) I dozed off for a bit only to be awoken by the incessant chatter of the announcement system, which kindly informed me that my train was now only to arrive at 6 am.

By this point I figured there was no rational reason to believe this train was going to arrive any time soon, if at all. Maybe it didn’t really exist. Maybe all of the other passengers smartly hopped on other trains much earlier instead of lounging like myself on the prosperous comfort of the floor of Kanpur Central. It was 3:15 in the morning, it was time. I hopped to my feet, collected my things, and strode with a sense of purpose to the ticket counter. I was going to create a hulla, I told myself (more realistically, I also told myself, I was going to try and buy another ticket). As I walked down to platform 1 I saw a train was slowly pulling away. I saw it was going to Delhi. I needed to go to Delhi; this train was going to Delhi. I ran up to it and asked the guy standing in the doorway of the moving train, Ye gaadi Dilli jaarahi hai? He said yes. I jumped on. I found myself in a sleeper compartment, with an open berth. I quickly locked up my samaan below the seats, and went to sleep.

I was woken up at quarter to nine by the prodding fingers of the TT. He asked me quite routinely whether I switched seats from another compartment. I fumbled sleepily for my glasses and stared at him, thinking about what I should do. He asked for my ticket. I handed him the one I had, braced for the impending cataclysm. He told me my ticket was for compartment S11. I had no clue what compartment I was in, but he did not seem to notice my ticket was for a completely different train. I quickly snatched it back, and apologized. Naam kya hai? Khan? Aap M. Khan hai? I didn’t want to lie to him. I wasn’t M. Khan. The TT was shuffling through all his papers checking the names on the list. I told him I’ll go back to my compartment and started grabbing the bag I was using as a pillow. Thik hai, bat jao. The TT stared at me for what seemed like a little too long, but was probably no more than several seconds. I was waiting for it, for something, something that was going to drag this out to the eventual realization that maybe I didn’t belong there. He told me to sit down below and continued on his rounds of the compartment. I smiled.

If you must know, it was a comfortable ride back to Delhi. I made a point to spend time hanging out the doorway as the train whipped through the countryside (one of the best ways to spend a train journey), simply breathing. I took in the villages of Uttar Pradesh as my mind engaged in trying to catch up to speed in processing the last eight months. From my work in the rural hills of Kumaon with Gram Panchayats and the public health system, to my experience as an Indicorps fellow, to the thoughts of my home, my family, my friends and the consumptive lifestyle I was living there. This processing included the past few days, which encompassed visits to the villages surrounding Kanpur and the slums within the city. It was all flying through my head. The story of the weavers, who enthusiastically told me about the cooperative they had started a year back, as I accompanied them to open the group’s bank account. The group of women in the slums who were running their own SHG and proudly explained their history. The family who insisted I first tell them who I was, and about the public health work I’ve doing in the mountains, and insisted I tell them as I munched on fresh tomatoes from their fields. The laughter between strangers who know they will never meet again, yet engage each other fully with no formality or hesitation. And the site of the Ganga, black, full of sludge and pollution from the countless tanneries that inhabit her banks. There is still so much more to mentally document from these past eight months that I am sure there is a lot I have already forgotten. A number of people, both young and old, kept getting on and off the train, many still bearing the purples, blues, and greens on their hands, faces, and clothes, displays of a well-celebrated Holi a few days before. A family around me took turns reading religious poetry and discussing their interpretations. My Hindi was certainly not up to pace, but it was entertaining nonetheless. I chatted with those around me as I inched closer to my destination. It was just another part of my journey, the larger journey – through India and Indicorps, one I have resigned myself to not fully comprehending just yet. Another story I may or may not recall, another piece that adds to this imperfect puzzle, and imperfect understanding of what this country, and this year, means to me.

I arrived in Delhi around noon. I was happy to be headed home for a day or two as I continued on my journey of seva. As I carried my bags up the stairs towards the exit, I heard from my good friends over the announcement system the train I was supposed to come on was further delayed, and was now to arrive at 5:30 pm.

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