December 12, 2013
We leave 3 ½ hours before the train departure to ensure that our taxi makes it through the city’s mad traffic. Much to our delight, we arrive within a little over an hour, beating the evening rush. I step out into the evening air, chilly and damp, Bubby perched on my shoulder tucked away in his kennel. The station is buzzing with movement and our rather obtrusive suitcases either glide easily, or have to be dragged haphazardly over broken bits, stones and gaps in the concrete. We immediately move toward a railway restaurant called Dakshin (meaning South) posted on the outside entrance of station. I wait outside with our baggage, Bubby fidgeting inside his cage, while Sanjeev gets us fried rice packed in parcels. Walking away from the crowd, we find a quiet corner of the building to eat. The rice is perfectly oiled and spice, and I have to restrain myself from inhaling it for not having eaten all day in my haste to prepare for the trip.
Moderately sated, we move through the station, me alternating from easily carting along my suitcase and keeping Bubby’s kennel upright, to struggling to maintain my composure. It seems as though tonight, I am the obstacle on display, interested eyes analyzing me, and the little being I carry. I feel as though our suitcases are enormous in comparison to what everyone else carries. We watch the signboard in the center of the room depicting train numbers and departure times to see that we are so early ours isn’t even listed yet. Not knowing what we should do with our time, we wind our way through the room littered with droves of people lying on the floor sleeping, or sitting on top of baggage waiting. We drink boiling hot chai at a corner food stall, the aromas of fried foods filling the air. I pretend not to notice the exorbitant amount of stares, and instead focus on a beautiful woman sitting amongst her luggage. Her sharply defined eyes make her look Tibetan, but her smooth caramel skin and her Indian style jewelry tell me she is from the Northeastern parts of India. Bubby continuously wiggles and periodically lets out small squeaks of annoyance at being detained, but I keep him concealed knowing that the attention I were to draw if I let him out would be overwhelming. The station is warm from the presence of so many people and despite the cool night breeze, I start to sweat in my pashmina shawl. People rush in from the entrance to my right; the sounds of conversation in multiple languages are drone out by the announcements of train numbers in Kannada and Hindi.
A thin man who looks to be in his early forties approaches us, looking to make some good money from porting our suitcases through the maze of the station to our platform. Sanjeev at first ignores his offers but then begins negotiating after I tell him I have no intention of hauling a 40-pound bag over uneven pavement and up and down flights of stairs. Why Indian railway stations have no easy way to transport baggage is beyond my comprehension. The porter and Sanjeev agree to a fee of 250 rupees (less than $5) and I watch him wrap a worn rag into a support on the top of his head. He utilizes the help of another to quickly place the first bag on top of his head, and I realize he fully intends to carry the second as well. I protest that it is far too much for him to carry, but he ignores me and has the second bag tossed onto his head momentarily almost dropping it, but quickly regaining his balance. He sets off through the crowds, Sanjeev on his heels and me tailing behind struggling to keep Bubby’s kennel in front of me and untouched by the rush of people. We squish through a metal detector that appears to be long out of service and weave between the moving and rushing people on the first platform and up the first set of stairs to the bridge. I watch nervously as the porter climbs, the bags bouncing on his head, narrowly avoiding dangling cables and signs above. The chilling winter wind blows my hair wild once we reach the top of the bridge crossing the tracks and trains below. The bag walla speed walks and I further lose distance, getting stuck behind slow walkers whom I respectfully attempt to overtake. Platform 8 is one of the last exits on the bridge, and we descend the stairs struggling to avoid colliding with others. The porter breaks into a jog once we reach the platform, walking the edge of the concrete where there is a good 4-foot drop to the tracks below. People move aside like waves seeing him coming toward them, and I feel rather snobbish with the porter slaving away while I cart around my dog.
After a few more minutes of rushing we reach the spot on the platform where our coupe will be, the porter skillfully unloading the heavy bags. I tell Sanjeev to give him 300 and he does, only to be manipulated into giving him 50 more for the labor. I can’t really blame him, yet I can’t help but wonder how one acquires such a profession. We settle on a small granite cube amongst a crowd of others waiting, and relax that we are finally so close to boarding. Bubby’s persistent whines convince me to let him out, but his inability to sit still in my lap, and the immediate crowd that is drawn at his sight makes me tuck him away again.
There are so many people speaking so many different languages; so many sounds here. Trains on other platforms blare their horns, the sounds deafening for a moment. The hum of machinery in various states of movement is constant, and I hear a jackhammer somewhere nearby tearing up concrete. The smells of train stations are as variant as their sounds. It smells of oily and spiced food or steaming chai one moment, stale concrete, urine, or trash the next. I wrap myself in my shawl, its warmth welcomed now that the evening’s chill has set in, and I settle myself. I decide to pass the time by writing, immersing myself in the solitary act of moving pen across paper. Like working in a bubble, I am untouchable for a moment, unaware of the curious stares of the people passing me by, only periodically interrupted by Sanjeev’s comments of excitement. I scribble out my thoughts as fast as I can, hunched over under the artificial light above me, but time moves too fast, and before I know it, Sanju is nudging me to watch our train back into the platform. He quickly stands, anxious to board, but I make him wait for a few more minutes, thoughts flooding my head. Finally, his standing over me breaks my concentration, and I gather my things, and look for our coach. A couple of minutes later, I am reading the white printed sheet of paper posted outside the train’s coach door, seeing my new last name in print for the first time. Sanjeev clumsily loads the bags through the narrow entrance, and we cram our way through the hallway, squeezing by train waiters to our coupe. I arrange our belongings underneath the lower bunk bed and in various other nooks of the tiny room that is to be our dwelling for the next 33 hours. Bubby is excited to be free of his confines and happily plops into his beddie, snuggling up in is striped PJs and blankets. Shortly thereafter, the train sounds its horn, it is almost time to leave the platform. We are visited by multiple train servers, who provide us with bleached white sheets, pillows and blankets. A man with a contagious smile takes our order for food and fascinated with Bubby, points at him and says in Hindi Maja a gaeya “I enjoy him”. He tells us that Bubby’s needs will also be catered to. A few minutes later, an unbelievably tall and thin man with a long face and kind eyes provides us with water bottles and pitcher with boiling water for Bubby’s food. He looks as though he is a Jhatt – a fighter clan from North India reputed for their strength and stature, but his soft-spoken demeanor and avoidance of my eyes tells me he is a gentle giant. A few minutes later we feel the first tugs of movement, which evolve into growing pace. Within 15 minutes we are promptly served hot tomato soup and breadsticks before dinner, the trays on which the bowls are placed sway with the movement, but never manage to spill. The train increases its speed and the cabin’s rocking makes me struggle with my penmanship. Giving in to the lack of writing ability and feeling the lull of sleepiness from the long day, I snuggle in my blanket and let the journey begin.