Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Beggars and Gentlemen—part 3

A remnant of the RAJ
Occasionally when the two legacies of British imperialism intersected, the results were startling. In Delhi I went to the main station to book the next leg of my journey. 
“How long will you be in India?” the clerk behind the desk asked.
“About another five weeks,” I said.
“Very well,” the enigmatic head nod, “then tell me where you wish to go and I shall book it.”
“But I don’t know exactly.”
“No matter. It can be changed.”
The clerk unfolded a large map of India and over the following half hour we worked out an itinerary that took me to all the major places I wanted to visit.
“Very good,” the clerk congratulated me. “You will see much of India. Come back tomorrow.”
Without much faith, I returned the next day. My clerk stood and waved a greeting at me above the heads of the other, less-fortunate travellers. “Everything is done,” he said, handing over a printed itinerary. “Please enjoy your stay in my country.”
If this had happened in Japan, where people get upset if a train is a minute late, I would have believed our clerk, but after ten days in India, I was getting used to travel uncertainty. Miraculously it worked perfectly; the trains were where they should be, mostly when they should be, even at the places where there was only a half hour connection. 
Some things haven't changed
since long before the British arrived
Of course, the trains didn’t always run on time. One train, already scheduled to take nearly fifteen hours to cover 250 kilometres, was two-and-a-half hours late arriving, and some routes were better than others. High speed trains ran between some major centres, but on rural lines it was still sometimes necessary to change trains because the gauge of the rails changed. The highlight was, four weeks after my visit with the clerk in Delhi, I arrived at two in the morning at Madras (now Chennai) station to find my name handwritten in careful gothic script on a board on the platform, a reserved sleeping car complete with bedding, and a smiling attendant who, unasked, brought breakfast in the morning. Perhaps Jim’s ghost was looking after me.
India is, and I suspect has always been, a land of staggering divergence—cleanliness and filth, peace and violence, gentlemen and beggars. I suspect this is why so many people find it so difficult to adjust to travelling in India. From one moment to the next you can never be totally certain which side of the contrasts you are about to land on. Most of these disparities can be encountered on the railways.
My favourite railway companion was a gentlemanly Parsee, Mr. Pavri, on a journey down to Bombay (now Mumbai). He was an education specialist and we conversed pleasantly on the relative strengths and flaws of education in India, Canada and Scotland and he told me about his religion and his sorrow that his three sons were in America and would not be able to care for him in his old age. 
Every so often, he would break off the conversation with, “Please excuse me for a moment.” He would then produce a tiny transistor radio from his pocket, press it to his ear for a moment or two before returning it to his pocket. Noticing my puzzled expression, he explained, “Cricket. The test match with Pakistan is on just now. It is the third day and we are not doing so well.” I suppose that is the advantage of a five-day-long cricket match—one doesn’t need to pay attention all the time.
Gateway to India in Bombay (Mumbai),
the first sight for many coming to the RAJ
As the train reached Bombay’s sprawling suburbs, Mr. Pavri invited Jen and I to get off a stop before our destination. He took us in a taxi to a restaurant and bought us dinner, although he didn’t eat, “My wife will have prepared something for me,” and took us back to the station to complete our journey.
On the other side of train travel in India, I was targeted by a beggar girl on a platform in Jhansi. She was 10 or 12 years old and had the most incredibly annoying whine imaginable. By then I had been travelling for a while and was used to beggars and took precautions around keeping my packs at my feet, if possible with a foot through a strap. The fact that this girl had followed me through the station and stood about four feet away whining incessantly and unbearably should have given me a warning, but it didn’t. Eventually, I could take no more. I stood up, took a couple of steps forward and yelled at her to shut up and go away. She vanished into the crowd, and so did the daypack that had been at my feet.
I looked around, but it was futile; the theft was professional and the pack long gone. I went to report the loss to the railway police and bureaucracy kicked in. I was asked politely but repeatedly what colour the pack was, how big it was and what was in it. My only consolation was that opening the pack must have been a disappointment for the thief since most of the contents were either personal—prescription glasses, address book, etc.—or of low value—small camera or bottle of perfume. The most frustrating loss was the trip diary from Nepal.
After two hours of alternately being asked the same questions and sitting waiting for a report to be drawn up, I had an idea. There was no hope of getting the pack back, but I needed something official for the insurance company back home. I got a piece of paper from a policeman, wrote out what had happened and what had been stolen, and signed it. I then took it up to the desk and pushed it over. The policeman didn’t speak English so I pointed to the impressive array of rubber stamps on his desk and mimicked stamping the letter. He got the idea and entered into the spirit of things, smilingly stamping the letter with an impressive collection of Hindi stamps. I don’t know what the insurance company made of them all, but I was eventually reimbursed.
Of course, not everyone met on an Indian train is a gentlemanly as Mr. Pavri. On a commuter train in Bombay Jen and I were separated in a crowd so dense that neither of us could move. Jen was shamelessly groped by the men around her. When we pulled into a station and the doors opened, I had to physically haul people out of the way to get Jen off the train. The passengers thought it was a great joke and only later did we learn that there were separate carriages for women.
An alternative mode of transport
Taxing though the railways could be, there were worse modes of transport. I feared for my life on numerous occasions as taxi drivers played chicken at high speeds with approaching buses, and almost lost an arm as I careened through traffic clinging onto the side of a Tuk Tuk. Once, an insane rickshaw driver hurtled round a corner into the middle of a funeral procession. Amidst much angry shouting and gesticulating, the linen-wrapped corpse was thrust under my nose to point out how inappropriate the rickshaw driver’s actions had been. At least on the trains, there were times when I was close to being alone and the railways were always a connection with my parents. I travelled by train to see sights all across India from the Taj Mahal to the beaches of Goa, but there were two places where I could be certain that I was walking in Eve and Jim’s footsteps.

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