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When the train is the strain


“But I have a plane to catch!” I wailed, uselessly. I stared in dismay at the ticket seller, who had just informed me that there were no sleeper tickets available for the twenty-hour trip to Mumbai. “You have to reserve the ticket,” he said haughtily.

I was tired. I was hungry. My body ached from the previous night, which had been spent on a bus. I was in no mood for a lesson in self-preparation and organisation. I turned to my travelling companion, Anna, and she looked equally distraught. The man’s face suddenly softened on seeing our distress. “You can buy the unreserved general class tickets, and then get on the ladies’ carriage; no men… ladies only!” he said brightly. After a brief discussion (a simultaneous nod – speechless communication develops quickly when you spend 24 hours a day together), we agreed and dished out the rupees.

We got on the train early, which was clearly a good plan, and we congratulated ourselves profusely once we had witnessed the manic scramble for seats that followed. On embarking the train, we had found spaces on the rock-hard wooden benches next to the window (no glass, just metal bars). Sitting opposite us was an exceptionally loud woman and about five hundred of her female relatives. They spoke no English but had plenty to say to us anyway.

The carriage filled up. Our spaces on the benches were reduced to the width of one butt cheek as more and more women piled in. When the benches were filled to their absolute capacity (ten people squeezed onto a bench designed for four), women plonked themselves on the floor. My feet were quickly sat on and used as a cushion for a chirpy young girl in a pretty orange sari. When all the floor space had been used, women leapfrogged over each other and clambered onto the luggage racks, where they sat nibbling berries and spitting the pips onto the passengers beneath them (namely, me).

As the train rumbled out of the station, children clamoured for the attention of the two western girls. We were celebrities, and our job was to entertain! We nattered away to the ladies beside us, none of us understanding a word the other was saying. We sang a dreadful rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ for their enjoyment, and the children onboard sang Indian folksongs. We ate home-cooked delicacies thrust upon us by our new friends. We gave one girl a tissue, which was passed around the carriage and caressed as if it were a rare and priceless piece of silk.

Initially unimpressed by the glassless windows, I began to appreciate them as the heat and sweat of so many women filled the air. I stuck my face between the bars and enjoyed the coolness of the breeze.

Three hours later we approached another station, and breathed a sigh of relief as ten thousand people got off. We sprawled out in the luxury of an extra three inches of seat space. Anna nodded off beside me and I watched in horror as twenty thousand more people got on. I nearly cried as my seat space was reduced to half a butt cheek, and a strange lady sat on my lap.

Our new companions were even more boisterous than the previous ones. Apparently they were all destined for Mumbai. Whenever we stopped at a station, they all rushed to the window to buy clay cups of Indian chai tea and samosas, completely oblivious to anybody in their path. When they had finished drinking, the women jumped up ten feet and sent the clay cups sailing through the air, between the bars on the windows and onto the train tracks. They could have been basketball champions.

Hours passed. I whispered to Anna that I needed the bathroom. She looked around at the women piled on top of each other and began to laugh. “Don’t expect me to save your seat for you,” she said. I considered this, as well as the likelihood of the toilets being better than a hole in the floor. I decided I could wait.

After a total of 22 hours of progressively more painful cramps developing in various parts of our bodies, we arrived in Mumbai. All things considered, the train ride was a fascinating experience. I learned a lot. And I am never, ever again going to get on an Indian train with a general class ticket.

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