Draft book chapter
We got a taxi to the train station which gave us a view of Kolkata whilst being insulated inside our ac car. We passed steel shops full of pipes and sheets of steel, lots of small trade or industrial units, like the auto parts area of Chennai.
There was the odd newly painted or well maintained building that stood out amongst the grey. Pavement stalls sold basic provisions; I saw a stallholder sitting on the floor measuring out handfuls of rice or flour with his hand into newspaper packets.
We saw a big metal bridge, and huge grand colonial buildings, one big and red, they seemed to be mainly banks.
Kolkata train station was busy outside and in. There was a big board with all the trains on, we were early and there was nothing about our train yet. We went into a food place, it had a quieter seating area upstairs that was calm. The manager came up to us and shook my husband’s hand, and asked us for our order; he looked a little crestfallen when we only ordered veg fried rice, a safe staple for travelling.
‘See, there’s always someone,’ my husband said. Always in India there seemed to be someone who offered help or came to befriend or talk to us.
The station master told us which platform. Our train was called The Doon Express, which sounded like something from Harry Potter.
The station wasn’t really that bad after all. I’d been preparing myself, having watched the film Lion, but actually, after having food and then going back down and hanging about, it wasn’t as hectic as I’d thought.
There were a few dogs lying down, just sleeping right in the middle amongst where people walked. There were lots of people on blankets, not sleeping rough, just encamped waiting for trains.
The colours of Kolkata station seemed to be navy blue. A woman in a navy blue kurta and blue leggings, another woman dressed all in navy blue with a white scarf; a Sikh man wearing a navy blue velvet turban.
On the platform itself, it was dirty and dusty. The train was delayed so we had a bit of a wait. A man hung around us and stared at us a lot, in the end my husband shouted at him to go. I felt uncomfortable, but it seemed like he was after money rather than being a threat. There was an Indian man standing near us, and I felt as if he would have helped had we needed. Another Indian man asked my husband about the train; although we were at the correct platform, we’d been advised to keep listening to the announcements as platforms can be changed at any time, which meant no one was 100% certain. It meant we made a connection with someone on the platform. I bought water from the platform kiosk and the man was super friendly which further reassured me.
There was a big queue for the regular class, people with big plastic drums, I didn’t know what of, food stuff, containers of possessions, goods?
We saw a fellow tourist and thought we were probably in the same class, and walked up the platform in the same direction as him.
Anthony the waiter had booked our tickets before we started booking our own. We were in three tier, which is a step down from two, with shabby looking chains and no curtains.
A family got on, they seemed really hesitant to sit down, I wondered if it was because the women and girls didn’t want to sit next to my husband; he moved, we tried to offer to move places, us to move to the two side beds, allowing them the whole bay with the set of four beds, but we weren’t able to communicate with each other.
Just before the train left most of their party got off anyway as they were just saying goodbye, and some of the others went off to seats elsewhere.
A grandmother from a different family with a baby came to see us, ‘Say hi,’ she said to the baby. She gave me the baby to hold, nonchalantly. The baby’s parents came to chat. They explained that they were a party of eight on a thirty-six hour journey to visit a Hindu pilgrimage site. A family with a tiny baby, on a thirty six hour train journey, that’s how important their religion is.
We showed the family pictures of where we had stayed in Kolkata, the Grandmother’s face was a picture; they didn’t share our enchantment with the old buildings.
The baby was after the mum’s glasses. The Grandmother tried to encourage the baby to take my husband’s glasses when he wasn’t looking. She called us Grandfather and Grandmother to the baby. ‘Not Auntie and Uncle?’ I asked, ‘No no, Grandfather, Grandmother,’ she said firmly. Fair enough, okay, we’re old enough.
The woman, the baby’s mum, pointed at my Om pendant and asked me if I knew what it meant. I gave a solid explanation and she nodded and seemed satisfied. ‘Why are you going to Varanasi?’ she asked. Indian people can be very direct. My husband answered that one. ‘India is one of the holiest countries in the world, and Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India, and the feeling you get from being in such a place is something we really appreciate, even though we aren’t Hindus.’
The family chatted to us for ages then left. It was so sweet of them. ‘Do you think they all just decided to come and talk to us? That they said to each other, let’s go and talk to them?’ My husband said. We were the only foreigners we could see in our carriage. Often when travelling on the train it was the same; we often wondered how the foreigners got to places.
I finished my blog and then we watched Netflix. Like reading people’s blogs, Netflix provided a continuity, a thread that held me, wherever we were.
The comfort of watching BoJack Horseman together on my husband’s tablet. As the silky intro music came on, languid with a sound like bubbles popping, I felt a wave of emotion and my eyes almost filled up.
‘Wherever you go, that’s where you are.’* That’s true. My white room in Harleston, my husband had gone out, I had stayed in feeling ill with a cold, and was cosy and happy watching endless BoJack; that music, the colours… Every hotel room, every place. The only thing I’m homesick for, is here.
I brushed my teeth and got into bed, my husband checked the chains to reassure me before I climbed up. There was a clean white cotton sheet and a thick heavy charcoal woollen blanket. I folded my scarf lengthwise and hung it over the chains which were covered in vinyl sleeves.
I lay there, I felt the train, lots of shaking and movement, and relaxed. I felt myself come back into India, and India come back into me. Moving, clanking, like gears, like a chiropractor, like my body assimilating into India again, adjusting. I felt safe, and I slept.
At four am the half of the family that were seated elsewhere came to the half that were near us, started chatting with each other and woke us up. At five am they got off and more people got on, people just talking normally with no concession to people sleeping. ‘This is India,’ we had to tell ourselves.
At six am I gave up trying to go back to sleep up and got up. I went to the loo and afterwards I stood looking out of the door- at least one of the doors are usually wide open on the trains.
Outside there was miles and miles of green. There were derelict buildings, some being used as dwellings. In the middle of the expanse of green there was a little gold temple. I felt India say to me, ‘I got you.’ I wasn’t afraid anymore, and all the love was back.
Thank you very much for reading
About the author
Sold house left job decluttered almost everything else. With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Currently in Vietnam. Returning to the UK in three weeks to live on a narrowboat. Writing a book about everything…