Monday, December 20, 2010

Night Train to Varanasi

Both of our families arrived at the New Delhi train station at nightfall.  We piled out of the van, grabbed our individual backpacks, and grouped on the sidewalk.  Through the dim, dusty light cast by a few car headlights and the glow of the train station, we could see hundreds of people, some walking as if in transit -- others sitting in groups, their heads draped, either waiting or possibly living there.  Those in transit carried their belongings in suitcases or, more often, in bundles slung over their backs or piled on their heads.  
My sons looked around, wide eyed  A wiry man in a turban offered his services as a porter and Keir quickly established a price.  We didn’t really need a porter to carry our bags, Keir explained, but to actually find the train. The porter piled a couple of our backpacks on top of his head and slung the others over both shoulders.  
Robyn said, “Each adult should hold the hand of one child and don’t let go.”
I took Spencer’s, Pat took Murphy’s, and Robyn took Zoe’s.  We started to follow the porter as he picked up the pace, weaving through the thickening crowd.  I kept my eye on Keir up ahead and glanced for Pat and Murphy behind me, and Robyn and Zoe behind them. We moved rapidly and I tightened my grip on Spencer’s hand.  
“There’s Keir,” Spencer would say every half-minute, his voice tight, as we struggled to keep up.  He would then glance over his shoulder and confirm, “I see Daddy.”  I kept my eyes on Keir and the fading porter with backpacks ahead of him.  I couldn’t imagine how we would find Keir again, if we got lost.  The chaos of train stations is familiar to me.  But I, here, couldn’t see any information booths and I couldn’t tell who was working at the station.  There were simply tons of people milling, squatting in groups, and some furiously hurrying like us.  It’s possible that there was more order than I could ascertain, but I couldn’t make it out in the dark.  Where were the lights?
With singular focus on staying together, I was unable to contemplate the scene on any deeper level.  After descending some stairs, we arrived on a platform.  The porter slung all of our backpacks in a heap and pointed to our train.  
Robyn and I spread out the backpacks so that the children could sit on them.  Only one beggar circled us, an old woman with an eye patch, her hand extended.  Even after several refusals, she persisted, coming close.  I could see the boys bodies pull away.  
Keir disappeared into the crowd to establish that this was, indeed our train and to find out where our berths were.   The train started to screech.  It sounded plaintive, wheezing, exhausted.  The boys jumped up from their backpacks and huddled around me, their hands covering their ears. As the sound increased, they buried their heads into my waist.  I put my arms around them tightly. They both began to whimper. I pulled them in close, nuzzled both of them, repeating, “It’s going to be all right.” Occasionally, they would peek out, only to return comfort of my body.
A small group of men pushed a gurney past us.  On it was an old man, covered in a thin sheet, his mouth hanging open.  Varanasi is a holy place to die.  
I could see Keir cutting is way through the crowd.  My heart lifted. Surely he had found our berths and once on the train, the children (and I) would be reassured. Over the deafening noise, he shouted that he had found his family’s reservations two cars ahead, but ours would be posted on a piece of paper outside the care in front of us.  I pulled the boys in tighter.  People with bundles and suitcases started piling on the train.  I saw a man tape a paper onto the car and Pat and Keir ran over to consult it.  Within seconds they hopped on the train. Through the windows I could see them talking with several passengers.  Keir had told us that our reservations might not be together and that we might have to negotiate with fellow passengers to get four bunks together.  Through the smeared window, I saw passengers in nod at Keir and stand, moving to other spots on the train.  Shortly after that, Keir and Pat jumped off the train and made their way through boarding passengers, over to us.
“They’ve overbooked,” Keir yelled.  “But we found three together.  We’ll have to wait for a conductor to work it out.”  
Pat and Keir grabbed the children’s backpacks, I picked up mine, and we followed them onto the train.  There were four plain brown linoleum berths, with sets of sheets, a pillow, and a blanket piled at one end of each.   They were not in a separate compartment.  We could see others boarding and even a man across the aisle, locking his suitcase to his bed with a chain.  On the berth across from the children and me, sat an older Indian gentleman with a sweet smile. 
“This gentleman has also been assigned to our berth,” said Pat.  “When the conductor comes, we’ll see if he can get a different berth.  Or maybe we’ll have to split up.”
The kids leaned into me.  I knew that they would be frightened if we were split up.  Even if it came to Pat or me sleeping in a berth somewhere else, leaving them with the other parent.  The gentleman smiled wider.  I nodded back and smiled, politely.  There was nothing to be done, apparently.  We could only wait for the conductor.  Who knew how long that would take and the children were exhausted.  
The lights in the car where glaring, people shuffled back and forth, several people lay down on their berths, pulling heavy maroon curtains across, shielding them from view.  The train wheezed out of the station and started chugging.  I looked that the old man.  Pat sat next to him across from me to wait.  Then it occurred to me that we had the three berths. At worst, Pat or I would have to move or we would have to double up.  Either way, the kids could take the two top berths now.  
We hoisted them up into the berths, completely clothed, and pulled sheets over them.  Robyn had suggested that the blankets might not be clean, so I shoved those to the children’s feet.  We didn’t talk much.  I simply told the kids to go to sleep.  We weren’t going anywhere and within seconds they were asleep. I honestly think that they both simply shut down.  They lay prone, unmoving, heavy, as Pat and I sat down opposite each other on the bottom bunks, the smiling gentleman setting a pack near the pillow on this shared berth with Pat.  
The train picked up speed.  We waited, not talking.  Fully-lit. Tired.  The gentleman reached over to his pack and pulled out a plastic jug.  He got up and shuffled between Pat and me.  I looked across the aisle to see the man with the chained suitcases, meditating on his berth.  I couldn’t imagine how he could still his mind with the glaring light on the clanging, lurching train, and people walking back and forth with great purpose, bundles in hand.  
After a few minutes, the man returned.  He shambled between us again and placed his jug into his pack and zipped it up.  Then he slung the pack onto his shoulder and motioned to us that he was moving.  He had found another spot.  I smiled at him, greatly relieved and bowed my head. He put his palms together and bowed.  
“Wasn’t that lovely?” I said to Pat.
Pat nodded and we both stood up to wrangle our sheets and push our packs under our berths.  Lights started to go out and we located ours as well as our maroon curtains, which, when pulled, enclosed the family in what could pass for a cabin.  Pat and I turned out the remaining light in our curtained off haven and lay down on our berths.  
The rocking of the train put me to sleep almost instantly.  I woke up what seemed like a few hours later.  The train was dark.  I couldn’t hear any talking.  I stood up to check the children who hadn’t moved at all.  I adjusted their sheets and lay back down.   It had grown quite cold. I was reluctant to use the blanket as I could see Pat had.  So I pulled out my backpack and located a fleece vest.  I arranged it over me and thought.  
         I found myself drained of worry.  We were safe. We were sleeping.  We were together.  The only thing that was imperfect was the cold and my need to go to a reportedly revolting bathroom.  I tried to avoid the tightening in my bladder but it would not be denied.  I had been dimly aware of Pat waking up earlier to relieve himself.  Surely, if he could do it, so could I.  I sat up in my berth, slid on my crocs and made my way out of the car into a brightly lit area with a dripping public faucet. Rust and dirt covered every surface.  I barely looked and pulled open a door to a toilet.  I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I blurred my eyes, hovered over the bowl and let go, my legs tight.  
         Truth be told, the bathroom was probably on a par with some of those in alternative clubs in the village back in the eighties and I’d seen a few porta potties that were worse.  I pulled up my pants, quickly opened the door, and scooted back to my berth.
         I fell asleep again and was finally awakened by the light streaming through grimy windows.  I lifted my head and looked out.  What I saw seemed other worldly, people in groups by the tracks squatting by small fires, emaciated cattle, pigs, and goats picking through garbage, dust everywhere, people with barely any clothes at all and many completely robed, sitting on the ground or walking with walking sticks.  There were stretches of uninhabited brown land and some cultivated green patches.  
        Pat rustled and lifted his head to look.  We both lay opposite each other as the train sped past scene after scene of communities that lived in filthy small shanties or simply on the brown land.  
       The boys stirred and both came down to our berths.  Sleep seemed to all but erase the tension of the night before.  They were relaxed and curious, looking out the window with us.  We rubbed their backs and didn’t say much.  It wasn’t a time to philosophize.  I didn’t want to interpret what they were seeing for them. After an hour and some breakfast bars, they returned to their own berths and enjoyed romanticizing their own little spaces.  They took out their camping headlamps and wrote in their spiral notebooks, chatting with each other happily across the divide.
Zoe and Murphy in the top bunk
Sink on the train


  1. lordy have mercy i can't believe this. and we're cranky back here in our big safe houses because it's rainy. good luck and keep writing, it's so fun to be with you on your journey...

  2. Wow. Wow.

    Thank you for metabolising this for us.

    I'm following and loving it. Next next next.

  3. Wonderful to read about your adventure - hoping to read more soon! Hope all is going well!

  4. wonderful descriptions and it's all so true. Just like when I was there on the trains, Varanasi, crowds, animals, filth, stinks, and equanimity everywhere.