Rocked to sleep by a gently swaying train thumpty-thumping over joints in the tracks is one of life’s great pleasures. I was lulled at the start and end of each term by this soporific delight and as I made my way to Delhi my mind travelled back to Kenya. Elephant, giraffe and arguing boys. A mouth so swollen by school elders that at breakfast in the dining car a Kenyan politician exclaimed, “And you call us uncivilised!”
I woke, startled by such vivid dreams. A hand rapidly retreated from my pillow. I sat upright too quickly, banging my head on the curving ceiling. The compartment door slid open. Fortunately my bag was still nestled into my back. How, when we’d locked it, had somebody crept in? Five minutes later knocking on the re-secured door gave the answer – the would-be thief had watched and waited until somebody went to the loo.
I was now with the monkeys swinging through the branches around me…my favourite game as a child was to climb high in the jungle across the river. Again I woke with my heart racing. This time it was the plaintive cry of: “Chai! Chaai! Chaaiii!”
The boy’s specifically tuned tone did its job, drilling in to my scull as he stood outside our locked door raising his notes with each passing moment without a response. Irritated by his persistence, I jumped down from the top bunk, drew back the door and growled, “Go away!”
“Chai, chai, chai!” He kept piercing our skulls until I ordered one. Scrabbling like everyone else in the compartment for my wallet, I noticed it was 3am. What the heck was he selling us tea at this time? Desperation. The only way he could help raise money for his parents at their food trolley outside on the platform. My head bursting, I drank three cups in despair.
The tannin and caffeine kept me awake and I lay back listening to my eight snoring neighbours upon whose habituated systems the tea had had little effect. The woman in the middle bunk beneath me lay with her three children aged between six and fifteen – four tangled together in a slit assigned for one. We in the West, I mused, live in luxury – having a bedroom to ourselves. Most Indians and Africans huddle together in a single sleeping room. I had seen by their expressions as they arrived that this this swaying compartment was absolute luxury to some of my fellow travellers.
Although himself from a privileged background, my novel’s main character is deeply touched by the ordinary lives of those around him as he settles in to India.