Travel: I searched India for the meaning of life, and then I discovered first class
Sunday 05 April 1998
Because 15 years ago was when I last travelled on India's railways. During the long monsoon of 1983 I managed a series of train journeys across the Sub-continent and I confess that I did not then think to pack my portable type-writer. The only concession to civilisation I had made with regards to packing was a bow-tie that I could wear on the off-chance of being picked up by a Maharashtra movie princess. It didn't happen.
As for the trains, they were exercises in self-torture. Although I did my best to make reservations (in second class) it was remarkable how often I ended up double-booked with some wide-eyed local who could not possibly have been the type to forge a reservation stub. Even on the occasions when I found myself with the luxury of a whole sleeper to myself, the benches were made of hard wooden slats designed to break ribs, and sleep was periodically interrupted by scaley insects clattering through the window bars, not to mention mosquitoes the size of buffaloes. The worst journeys were the ones without reservation - when my best hope was that obliging Indian army thugs would plough into the carriage on my behalf and vacate a seat or two by kicking out the original occupants, who invariably turned out to be pregnant women. Not that I could refuse. A vacant seat in an unreserved carriage was far more valuable than the life of an unborn foetus. My punishment was that I would then spend the next 24 hours melting into my seat while trying to avoid the reproachful gaze of the pregnant women, who - along with a couple of dozen friends - would silently occupy the space between my knees and the seat opposite.
Anyway, those journeys led to a lot of soul-searching regarding the Indian scenery.What, for example, was the purpose of a lone palm tree by the Ganges, which I glimpsed for no more than a single second as the train passed it by? Come to think of it, man, what was the sense of anything?
Which brings me back to the subject of what has changed in the last 15 years. Let's look at the carriage I'm currently in. It is air-conditioned. I am not being pummelled by a desiccating heat for hour after hour. Incredibly my shirt is clean and dry. What's more, there are only four berths in my compartment, one of which is empty. There is no queue of people squeezing up on the edge of my bench. There is nobody hanging on the luggage rack, nobody staring out blankly from between my shoes, nobody balanced along the top edge of the seat. There is only a carriage-attendant who proposes coffee or tea, and biryani with eggs or meat. I can even open my lap-top without risk of collapsing under a scrum of mind-boggled onlookers.
You might say that the only difference between now and then is that I have graduated to a higher class of carriage. Because yes, the vast majority of Indians do still travel in second class. But actually I've realised something else: that people in air-conditioned carriages are far too comfortable to ask deep questions about the meaning of lone palm trees glimpsed by the Ganges. Coffee or tea? That's about my limit now.
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