On the Taj Express

by Susan Bultitude

A mistake leads to adventure when a traveler in India misses her train station, and strikes up spontaneous conversations with local commuters.

The train’s window disappoints me intensely. It is a Perspex (or perhaps glass?) square of an ugly orange hue, crazed by cracks running in all directions. The feeling I have is akin to claustrophobia. Being unable to see clearly disconcerts me —I feel cheated of an experience, trapped.

Rail journeys are like movies to me—landscapes pass by in flux, baffling scenes exist for but an instant; the cast and set a parade of people, animals, plants and buildings.

Beyond this orange barrier, Delhi is cloaked in early-morning darkness. Only blurred ghosts of light and shadow are visible. My heart sinks.

A middle-aged woman takes the seat beside mine. She is dressed in a crisply-pleated saree and carries a smart handbag.

 We greet each other politely as the train grates and jerks away from the platform.

Eager to talk, her English is exceptionally fluent. It turns out she lived in the United States for many years,  gaining a Doctorate there. She lives in India now, her birthplace. She bemoans how little progress has been made in India regarding the rights of women. The continuing requirement of young girls to adhere to ancient traditions distresses her greatly. She speaks without pause; I listen politely, nodding or frowning at appropriate moments.

Ms. Baatoonee (Ms. Loquacious as I shall name her), tells me about her own marriage, a disastrous union that lasted only six months, with distaste. She doesn’t elaborate. There is an implication of intellectual and sexual disparity, possibly abuse. Her story is lucid and interesting, but depressing.

Streets of Delhi – Credit

The train stops for a few minutes at an unannounced station. The passage of time has stumbled and disengaged during this one-sided conversation. Soon after the train pulls away, a young man sitting behind us asks, “To where are you travelling, Madam?” I reply, “Agra.”

A shadow falls over his face. “That station we left was Agra Station!”

I feel a momentary frisson of panic, then annoyance with my distracting seat-mate. Surely I told her I was headed for Agra?

I catch the eye of a passing guard and explain my predicament, expecting to buy a new ticket but fearing a fine. The guard looks stern for an instant then smiles understandingly—he will allow me to continue to the next station without further expense.

Ms. Baatoonee, unapologetic, buys me a coffee from a trainboard wallah. Our conversation has suddenly dried up; she begins scrolling through her phone. Passengers in surrounding seats quickly rally around to offer their support. The young graduate sitting behind us promises to help me with my bags when I alight. A couple sitting across the aisle offer a phone. I assume, naively, that my journey will end in a few minutes but am gently told the train will not stop for another hundred kilometers or so. We are travelling to a different state, Madhya Pradesh, and I will disembark at the city of Gwalior.

Ms. Baatoonee also hands me her phone so I might call my Agra accommodation and warn them about my late arrival. Eventually, through combined efforts and several phones, the message gets through—I will arrive in Agra on the Sarojini Express that afternoon. 

Nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy the ride!

The sun has risen; the ghastly orange window is less opaque. I stare, transfixed, at wheat fields and farmland. Men and women pull weeds, dig and reap. Further south the landscape changes. Pointed mud hills, like hundreds of miniature extinct volcanoes, spike up from the earth. I see goat herders in glorious colored costumes driving their flocks through the arid moonscapes on which only sparse thorn bushes can thrive. The goats are breathtakingly beautiful Sirohi animals, Roman-nosed with long, hanging ears. Their coats are marbled and spotted mixes of white, black, cream, chestnut and brown.

Finally, the train slows and halts. Ms. Baatoonee is gone in a flash, leaving me surrounded by helpful new friends. A kindly young woman checks the departures board—the Sarojini Express is cancelled, she tells me solemnly. She will call my homestay again. The only other suitable train would be the Chhatisgarh Express, due in three hours.

The graduate guards my bags as I use the restroom, then hoists them up again to escort me to the correct platform. On the bottom rung of the steps lies a dead dog. Its crusted eyes are glazed over, its tongue lolls out. A riot of blowflies rise up as we edge past.

The graduate hands me a slip of paper. He has bought me a ticket! My heart fills with gratitude and love for these wonderful people who have so valiantly come to my rescue. I will be saved by the hospitality of the Indian people more times than I can imagine over the next few weeks.

train travel on the Taj Express in India
Indian Train – Credit

Gwalior Station, though architecturally stylish, is extremely smelly. The pong of India—that amalgam of stale urine, pigs and drains—seems doubly strong here.

Swarms of plump blowflies settle on every surface. The local passengers-to-be eye me suspiciously as they await their trains; I feel this town doesn’t host many Western visitors.

A beggar sidling along on his bottom, dragging thin twisted legs, makes a beeline for me. He stops, hand out, in front of me. I don’t have any change; he shrugs and moves on.

I sit, surrounded by my luggage, on a plinth. How sad, how grim this place is!

Something sets off an exodus of flies from the dog carcass. I watch in horrified amusement as the dog, re-animated, pricks up a scabby ear.

A bench becomes vacant, so I move there, joining two women with broad tribal faces and robes unlike any I had seen in India. They are surely sisters, and one has a little boy on her lap. She plays with him in a way I cannot understand, kissing him and cuddling him one moment and then slapping him quite hard the next. The lad seems quite unperturbed and giggles at the roughness. Both women smile shyly at me. They wear very long white kurta-pajamas printed with geometrical patterns in black and red, their dupattas wrapped around their heads and throats.

We try to chat a little, but they don’t know any English—or Hindi—so we smile instead. I buy some crackers for us to share, and we laugh at their unpleasant flavor. The sister without the child points to a bench further along and takes my luggage to it. I realize the bench aligns with where the Women’s Coach should stop. We sit in the hot sun and wait. Many other passengers have wrapped themselves up to sleep on the platform. A couple with an enchanting baby boy chat to me. His mother bundles him up for me to hold—but here is the train at last!

The sisters help me into the Women’s Second Class coach, and we wave goodbye. Several youths are loitering within; a pair of policewomen board and eject them angrily.

I find myself a perfect single seat, only a few bars between me and the outdoors.

With a deafening blast from its klaxon, the train shudders and lurches on its way.

The speed is alarming; the train hurtles along the track, our coach directly behind the engine. If anything goes wrong, we will be squashed like flies.

 I submit to sheer exhilaration as the dust-laden wind rushes through the bars, my face burning from the sun. When we halt at tiny stations serving remote villages, hawkers, chanting their wares, hurry to the train. They carry urns of chai or soup, snacks savory and sweet.

We pass men hammering at parallel tracks, others sitting hunched over miserably.

Occasionally, indolent youths pelt our train with stones, some of which sharply hit and recoil.

Beyond my barred window I glimpse traditional pastel-colored mudbrick homes, trees, cattle, birds.

I share the Women’s Second Class coach with five or six other women, a small boy, and a husband. Apart from two shy older ladies, my companions are keen to communicate. The lady most confident in speaking English promises to alert me  when we reach Agra Cantonment Station.

A couple of extra men have managed to join us from intermediate stations. One, in his early twenties and stunningly handsome, stares at me so intently I become self-conscious and put my dupatta over my head. I hear him speak shyly, “Hello, what is your country?” so I turn to him. His expression is full of admiration and respect. He tells me that I am amazing, brave.

train travel on the Taj Express in India
Unexpected Friendships – Credit: Susan Bultitude (Author)

After two hours we reach Agra. As I clamber down to the platform, I am met by the sisters as they leave their carriage. Once again they help me with my bags until I am safely outside. I thank them profusely; they wave and disappear into the crowd.

I am seven hours late and, for a moment, feel lost and alone.

Across the road a man waits by a parked car.

He holds a placard on which I see, in bold black writing, my name.

Featured Image: India Train Station by Waldemar_RU

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