On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows
“The train can reassure you in awful places – a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or paralysis that afflicts the car passenger. If a train is large and comfortable you don’t even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to.”
– Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), page 1
It got really cold overnight in Calcutta. In the morning people were out in sweaters, beanies, long sleeves, wool, boots, scarves, and other articles of clothing and materials that I hadn’t yet seen. It was raining a bit too, so that put a stop to the planned trip I had with a dear friend to the famous Kalighat Temple. Instead, I went back to bed, tried to warm up, then settled on getting some tea: a common solution to many-a-problem. I wanted to take a bus to Howrah Station, but I was running late so I caught a cab, one where I got to prove that cab-fare haggling skills are slowly, if slightly, improving.
“Howrah Station,” I half-shouted into the cab window at Lords Bakery More. He gave me the sideways head flick for me to get in, thus I presumed that the meter would be used. Fine. As I reached for the door handle, I heard him shout something over the backseat to me.
“Tinsho taka,” he spat. 300 rupees
“Koto?” How much?
“Tinsho taka,” he repeated.
“Na bhaia, tinsho taka nai – dusho taka debo.” No man, not 300. I’ll give you 200. He shook his head in disappointment. Then he said something that I think was something similar to, “OK let’s split the difference,” but I didn’t catch it. Then he said, “dusho ponshash.” 250.
“Dusho bish,” 220, I said, and I looked him in the eye, letting him know that I wasn’t fooling around. He gave a defeated flick of his head and I triumphantly got into the spacious back seat when a kid begging for money began tapping on the cab window. I looked out the window nearly the whole way to Howrah, aside from the two times I had to re-close each of the doors beside me as they were rattling as much as I thought the axel was. The Howrah Bridge took my breath away. There’s something strangely mystical about that place, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Each time I cross it, which has been few, I tell myself that I must return to try and photograph the area, despite stories
I’ve heard of people getting their cameras snatched by cops for taking pictures of the bridge.
We reached the station and the cab driver basically told me to get out. I entered the station and waited while the much-louder-than-necessary announcements aurally drowned the waiting passengers mulling about. I had time to kill, so I went off in search of something that would keep my ears warm in Siliguri, namely, a headband. I found one for 30 rupees from a hawker selling clothes on a tarp on the ground outside the station. It says DIESEL on it in huge black block letters. I hadn’t had breakfast yet, and I had a long journey ahead of me, so I grabbed some luchis and aloo curry in a leaf bowl for 10 rupees. One of my favorite things about Calcutta is the street food.
“Street food is a lot like illicit sex: you are always told it is taboo; it gives you great pleasure and yet is looked down upon; and once you have discovered the forbidden pleasure, you want to return to it over and over again.” – Bishwanath Ghosh, Chai, Chai: Travels In Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off (2014), page 103
When I came back from my headband-buying and breakfast-eating, I re-entered the train station and asked some guys in uniform if they knew which platform the train for Siliguri would be on. There was a shuffle and the youngest guy went running off to see if he could find the answer to my question. The others debated and looked around, meanwhile they asked me where I was from, if I was married, if I have kids, what I’m doing here, how much my salary is, etc. But one guy, the youngest-looking one, was really friendly.
“Sir, Siliguri train is platform number eleven,” he sang. I said thank you, smiled, and went on my merry way. Later, the young guy found me again.
“Sir, may I please see your ticket?”
I pulled up my ticket on my phone and showed it to him. He seemed pleased, repeating, “yes, platform eleven.” I think he just wanted to talk.
“Sir, what kind of work you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Oh, very good, sir. Sir, do you know Hindi language?”
“No, I don’t. Ami Bangla jani ektu ektu.”
“Wow. Actually sir, I don’t know Bangla language. I’m from Jharkand, a state in India.”
“Oh really? I have a friend in Ranchi.”
“Wow, that’s great, sir. Our capital city.”
“How long have you been in Calcutta?”
“Sir, I came to Calcutta to work for the RPF.”
“Railway Protection Forces, sir.”
“Oh, I see. Very good. Do you work every day?”
“Yes sir, every day duty is eight hours.”
“A lot of work.”
“Yes sir, there is no leave.”
“Oh, I see.”
I wanted to buy him a cup of tea and hear more about the RPF, but he was on duty, so I merely offered to exchange numbers so that I could call him when I return to Calcutta.
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Dipak, sir,” he said, now showing some teeth.
“Dipak, very nice to meet you.”
“Thank you, sir. Yes sir, you too, sir. And your name, sir?.”
“My name’s John.”
“John sir,” he echoed, shaking my hand, “thank you, sir.”
We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to get in touch next year. My waiting continued, though not for long. While I was twiddling my thumbs, I heard something about a heavy bag in the conversation going on between the boys next to me. I looked over and they were staring at and pointing at my bag covered in a green rain slicker.
“Heh, heavy bag,” I said playfully.
They smiled bashfully, realizing that I had understood their use of two English words together surrounded by Bangla. A similar conversation ensued that mimicked the chat I just had with the RPF guys. “Your country? You marriage? You children?”, etc. They didn’t speak much English, and my Bangla is basically useless, so we didn’t talk for long. Before long, they were on their way with the rest of their huge luggage-toting family to their platform. We shared goodbyes and handshakes.
After leaving Howrah, the train began passing through the flat fields found throughout West Bengal. Kids were piled together on crumbling village station pilings, crowded around one kite flyer or another. The string of the kite trailed off into the foggy sky like an upside down fishing line into a grey ocean above. Railway workers in orange jumpsuits stood around and talked and drank little clay cups of steaming milk tea while our train whizzed by. Something clanked underneath the floor of the car I was in and everyone looked around as if to see the answer to “what was that?” was floating somewhere in the air. Spots on fields were being burned outside – I didn’t know why, but it gave the landscape a kind of doomsday/armadgeddon-esque feel to it with burning fires and vertical trails of smoke dotting the grim-looking surroundings. Other black spots dotted the fields and white ones followed them: fields workers in white fabrics chasing black, slow-moving water buffalo. Inside the train car, spoiled Bengali children in bright colors and freshly ironed shirts played noisy games on iPads. If everyone else in the car was going to ignore the noise then I was too, as best I could, anyway. The landscape outside began to look monotonously familiar: flat and foggy. I waited for tea to be served in a little paper cup from a little man in an Indian Railways uniform. The landscape stayed the same.
I had grabbed some veg biryani in the train station because I didn’t know if we would get meals on the train or not. After boarding the train, I got hungry, so I dug into the biryani. Next thing I knew, food was being served. Great. I was hungry, so I ate that too. That was at 3pm. Then at 5pm samosas, tea, and snacks were served. On the back of my Indian Railways and Catering Corporation Ltd. ‘Meals on Wheels’ Tea Kit, it read, above a scotch tape sealed flap, “Timeless Service, Timeless Taste”. I began saving my napkins for a potentially rocky future trip to the bathroom, or, as it’s known here, the loo.
I could tell it was getting cold outside as it was getting cold inside. I think Vodafone, my mobile service provider, was confused about my whereabouts, for I received a text message saying “Welcome to Vodafone Bihar,” shortly followed by a similar message that read, “Welcome to Vodafone Jharkand”, while all along I thought that I was still in West Bengal. I went to use the lavatory, and when I was done I pressed the button that read ‘Normal Flush’ instead of the red one that read ‘Emergency Flush’. I returned to my car to the sounds of children crying, Bengalis arguing, music playing, cell phones being spoken into, and the clank-clank-clank of the train taking its sweet time north to colder climates.
We arrived into New Jalpaiguri just as I was beginning to doze off to sleep, tired from having read the whole 8-hour train ride up there. It was cold getting off the train; the air hit me like a slap in the face – a sting not quite found in Calcutta. I exited the station to the expected mob of “Taxi? You going? Darjeeling?” Going straight to Darjeeling crossed my mind briefly, but then I figured that I wouldn’t reach there until 2am, so I skipped it. Instead I took a rickshaw through the completely deserted streets of New Jalpaiguri to a hotel. Street dogs seemed numerous here at night, but perhaps that was because the crowds of people were gone – those among whom the street dogs usually hide. I reached my hotel and quickly fell asleep.
I awoke surprisingly well rested after about 6 hours of sleep; I think I was just excited and anxious to get to Darjeeling. Light was coming in through the window; I had opened the drapes last night specifically for the purpose of letting in light in the morning. I turned on the geyser, a hot-water heater that everyone here pronounces ‘geezer’, which, I still haven’t gotten used to; but I was able to take a very warm shower – a treat. Fatima called me and her friend told me how much I should pay for a shared taxi to Darjeeling – needles to say, it was much less than the 2,500 rupees the guys hoarding me at the train station last night were quoting me. After having been told by the backpack-wearing hotel receptionist that there would be complimentary breakfast in the morning, I wandered into the hotel restaurant to find that “no, sir, breakfast is not complimentary.” I caught a rickshaw to ‘the Junction’ as I was told; shortly thereafter a kid in a beanie drove by in a stickered jeep asking “Darjeeling?” I got in. We did a lap around the area looking for more Darjeeling-bound passengers; all the while another kid was hanging out the back window shouting “Darjeeling! Darjeeling! Darjeeling!” but was shouting so fast that it came out more like “Darjing! Darjing! Darjing!”
Climbing into the towering hills, we weaved back and forth a thousand times, it seemed, up through the windy roads leading through little towns and villages to Darjeeling. I looked over the edge of the road to the green cliffs below and listened as the driver-cum-DJ played the chorus to Creed’s One Last Breath: “Hold me now, I’m six feet from the edge and I’m thinkin’: maybe six feet ain’t so far down”. And then something huge and white appeared among the clouds, but I only got a flash of it between the trees as the car wound around the bends. Must be more clouds, I told myself. We continued climbing higher and higher to the 6,812 feet that is Darjeeling, and I saw that the white masses I saw were not clouds – they were mountains. My eyes got real big real quick. I kept twisting my neck to get better views of these white giants, but I would smack my head on the car door doing so, producing laughs and chuckles from my fellow passengers behind me. I became absolutely euphoric instantaneously. Himalayan prayer flags began to appear, lining the road, while little boys and girls wearing mittens held their grandparents’ hands while walking down the road.
I told the driver where I was going, so he dropped me off at an intersection and pointed down another road saying “100 meters”. It was all uphill and I was thrilled. It felt great to walk uphill with a pack on, though I soon started huffing and puffing because I’m so out of shape. All the smog and fried food in Calcutta has done wonders for my health, to be sure. Walking up, I saw more white people in Darjeeling in an hour than I do in Calcutta in a week. I felt like continuing on all the way to Gangtok when I saw other jeeps with little signs on their dashboards that read GANGTOK. I decided to get up to Sikkim at some point, but not today. Then sun came out and I felt like I was in heaven.
(AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector landscape to be more efficient and effective.)