Big City, Little


The 3.30 from Old Delhi Station
Patrick Henry

Contrary to joke photos and film-clips showing thousands of passengers clinging like flies to crowded carriages, all trains in India are strictly controlled and need seat reservations. The lady in charge of this had flowing robes, a red caste mark on the forehead and a stern, distant expression as though she blamed me for not supplying her with the Taj Mahal in the seventeenth century she still lived in. I had complex plans to travel six thousand miles and my heart sank until she picked up my scruffy notepad disdainfully and on her computer booked everything perfectly in about ten minutes. Mysterious India.

An army captain shared the carriage for eight hours and avoided all attempts to draw him into conversation, though I know such figures speak English. A young accountant got on and became so friendly with me we exchanged addresses. Then the Captain demanded my address also, and produced a bottle of rum and shared it with me. Now he talked much, about national landscape and produce.

At Jaipur, I helped him off with his luggage, extensive and heavy. On the platform he threw his arms around me in farewell and said we were brothers for life, tears in his eyes.

From his luggage I knew he had been in the Punjab, war-zone on the Pakistan frontier. He would be going home or to another posting. He must have been through a time of terror, hence his extremes of behaviour.

My rickshaw driver in Jaipur had me explain a letter in English he received but could not read, from a girl he had met. It was from a convent in Southern India; I revealed that a Belgian nun had fallen in love with him.

In my carriage to Agra, a sixty-year-old lawyer said that though of Indian race, that like me this was only his second day ever in the country, being a Trinidadian, grandson of an indentured slave. Studying law in London years before, and asked how he spoke such good English, he had replied that it was the only damned language he knew. He laughed hugely, so I told him about the nun and the rickshaw driver. His guffaws shook the train all the way to Agra. A man in the corner grimmer than the Captain, eyed our merriment pityingly.