A night on Indian rails

It was 1:30am when the train inched its way slowly into the eerily empty station, lit only by a single orange light that managed to feebly cast its dim hue just a few feet, more of a magnet for flying insects and nocturnal bugs than any actual illumination.

The muggy humid air of a late Indian summer coated my fatigued body with a clammy film of perspiration despite the un earthly hour.

The monstrosity of a train stopped with the screeching sound of metal on metal, the brakes seemingly struggling to halt the giant steel can with windows. I boarded the rickety metal carriage with trepidation and with my 25kg bag strapped tightly to my back, I heaved myself up the high steps just as the train started moving once again, almost flinging me ungracefully back out through the opening. I clutched the rail tightly to get my footing before venturing into the crowded tube.

The dingy muted glow from the ceiling failed to light my way as I continued through the swarm of people in the near darkness. A musty smell hung heavily in the air, a strange mixture of rich Indian spices, cardamom and cloves entangled with stale sweat and body odor made my nostrils tingle.

I inched my way on tiptoes over soft, lazy bodies strewn across the floor, my ticket stub crumpled in my weary hand I searched along the rusty posts for my cabin number only to find two men already occupying my sleeper section.

Unsure of the correct procedure to eject a man from my space, I looked down once more at my ticket number to confirm what I already knew and showed it to him, ‘Excuse me, I think you’re in my seat’ I explained in my oh so polite British manner. With no response from the blank brown eyes staring back at me through the gloomy lighting I resorted to pointing and putting my bag down as an indicator of my not moving. A few tense and awkward seconds past before the men muttered something between themselves then peeled their bodies from my bed on the night train, shoving past me and making a noise that came from deep inside their throats as they relocated.

At the sight of a bed I let myself become filled with relief, after being on the road and walking around the manic streets of India for almost a full 24 hours, the thought of some horizontal down time was enough to elate me.

I crawled into the shadowy section thinking only of sleep, as my hands became covered in an unknown gooey substance left behind on the sticky plastic. Immediately the dreamy and dozy thoughts evaporated from my mind as I searched my bag for tissues and sanitizer.

Grainy crumbs covered the area and the light from my mini travel torch revealed two maggots crawling over one another in the lint filled corner of my allocated space.

This was me for the next 8 hours and with nowhere else for me to go on the packed transport I blocked out the dirt and maggots and shuffled myself far away from the unwanted creatures.

Feeling irritable and groggy I used a paperback book as a makeshift pillow and a shawl to cover my bare arms, I closed my eyes and went through the motions of sleep on the plinth like bed.

The rocking motion of the train did not send me to sleep like a baby, I turned and fidgeted for hours trying to get comfortable, every muscle in my body ached and just as I found a tolerable position, my eyes getting heavy with overdue sleep, the hint of dawn breaking through the darkness outside, the carriage turned into a hive of activity.

Chai Wallahs came out of nowhere shouting of their wares ‘Chaiiiiii, Chaiiiiiii’ as they pushed their way through the train, masterfully holding onto trays of chai and coffee without spilling a drop. Their shouts were followed even louder by ‘Puri Bhajiiiiiii’ as men selling the north Indian breakfast past by me. The scent of the deep fried breads and potato curry seemed to have awakened the carriage and my fellow passengers began to feast greedily.

Breakfast time had come around as we pulled to a stop at a bustling station and more passengers bordered the already crammed train. Another day in India had begun and it became clear that I would have to wait for my sleep.

S El-Haj

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