Don’t you hate those dull documentaries entitled, “Great Train Journeys” or some such toss where a celebrity or (even more annoyingly) some pretty, no-clue woman takes a famous train journey and seems to spend umpteen hours admiring the scenery through the window and occasionally popping out onto the platform for some local colour? This is where fiction is infinitely preferable. Who can forget that Cary Grant movie where he’s fleeing his pursuers and finds himself chatting up a hottie (well hot for those days) in the dining carriage or that James Bond movie ending where England’s finest agent pulls a blinder of a move to eject Jaws through the compartment window before getting down to nukie. I wonder if I’m alone in watching Michael Palin traverse yet another country wishing that he would be attacked, robbed or be confronted with a more exciting obstacle than mere delays and bureaucratic red tape. Well I can’t promise hi jinx on the trans-Siberian but over the next three blogs I’m going to relate three true train journey anecdotes that goes to show that a lot more than polite conversation and scenery admiration can happen on a long journey.
The first traveller’s tale involves the Vaishali Express that leaves New Delhi in the early evening and gets to Gorakhpur 9am the next day. At that time, Gorakhpur was an industrial city which reminded me of Bhopal despite not being blighted by any massive chemical leak disasters. Instead it was just blighted with anonymity and an unprepossessing character.
It was 1993 my first big solo jaunt in Asia and I had teamed up with two other Brits I’d met on the airplane who were also busily studying their LPs and wondering what the hell was going to happen when we arrived in India. Anyway we had spent the last 10 days in Pahar Ganj in New Delhi (much more interesting than Khao San Rd) in a state of extreme culture shock before we eventually figured out a plan of action. After securing Nepalese visas at the embassy we then found the booking office on the second floor of the train station (an oasis of order compared to the spectacle of burgeoning humanity being played out downstairs). And so the next evening we boarded our first Indian train and found our second class fan bunks. The open compartments consisted of three bunks on either side of a small table. Being evening they were already made. After the usual palaver of ejecting a random local from my bunk I settled in to the top bunk. The two bunks below me were occupied by my traveling companions and opposite was an experienced German traveller wearing flip flops made from a car tyre and two Indian men.
The early evening hours passed away pleasantly. Myself and my two friends and the German partook of stiff solo chillums in the toilet (already I was developing a precocious talent for squatting and chugging and defecating at the same time) and then laid around gazing at the procession of beggars and holy men and hawkers that constantly paraded down the isle and poked themselves through the window. As night came upon us and people settled down to sleep, the German pulled out a travelling chess set and one of our Indian bunkmates joined in. He proved to be typical of so many Indians I subsequently met who played a very aggressive game and never missed an obvious move. The other Indian bloke just laid on his top bunk. Looking back, I can’t remember him getting up. I think he had ensconced himself in his bunk before we arrived.
Anyway after several games of chess and a fascinating conversation about Gandhi-ji with the chess supremo Indian, we took to our respective bunks and allowed the clunk clunk noises of the slow train and bites of opium to lull us into a delirious stupor that passes for sleep in India.
The next morning we were aroused by the epic scene of dozens of people performing their bodily expulsions and ablutions and tucking into curries and snacks and squeezing past the amputee victim near the carriage entrance. As alertness slowly percolated through the drowsiness in our minds we began to turn our attention to the Indian fellow on the top bunk. His unsociable-ness the night before was forgivable but his immobility this morning while all his compatriots were busily doing their thing seemed less explicable. Eventually, the German took matters into his own hands and climbed up to the man’s bunk and spoke into the recumbent’s ear and getting no response, ventured a poke. But still the prostrate figure failed to respond. As you can imagine this spooked the shit out of us and we instinctively moved away from the body. I say “body” because the thought was getting born in a mighty hurry in our collective consciousness that we were in close proximity to a dead man. Without any of that movie heroics stuff of taking pulses or banging on the heart to resuscitate we decided that the dude was dead.
Our (living) Indian bunk companion soon caught onto the general mood of foreboding and advised us to call the carriage attendant. I don’t think we had a carriage attendant but we did find a man in uniform and presented him with the facts. Like a true pro the man quickly appraised the body and the situation and cut through chains of command and red tape to formulate a plan of action on the spot. The train was only a few hours from its final destination, Gorakhpur. We should pretend nothing is wrong he advised us in hushed tones and the authorities in Gorakhpur would deal with the matter.
And so we disembarked as soon as the train pulled into the station. At the time I admired the train employee’s polished discreteness in dealing with the corpse; but now, many years later, after consuming too many episodes of CSI, I wonder if we hadn’t contaminated the scene. I also wonder whether we hadn’t been witnesses to a silent death. Did he die during the night or had he been killed previously and cleverly been put on the train? I will never know. None of us had time for such reflections as we were immediately thrust into the melee of poor people, con men, taxi drivers and bicycle rickshaw whallas keen to take our rupees outside the station.
And so concludes the first installment of my series of blogs recounting memorable train journeys. Not once did I mention the passing scenery; and although I didn’t manage a life and death struggle hanging from a train door, I did manage death.