Train sleep.

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.


beside the tracks

The train pulled into a station and suddenly tea boys ran alongside yelling, “Chai! Chai!”, others broadcast loudly whatever foods they had to offer. I waited for the entering crowd to crush through the departing throng before stepping on to the platform. Unlike my compartment’s other middle-class travellers, I sought the thrill of wandering through the mobile stalls rather than ordering delights from the safety of the window. Picking and choosing samosas, stuffed parathas, deep-fried barges, banana fritters, lassis and countless sweetmeats…filled my belly.

A man walked over and asked if I wanted my fortune read. “There plenty time, train leaving ten minute,” he said when I protested about being left behind.

I sat before him on the cloth spread over the concrete floor. He peered in to my face and asked my date of birth. “Easy,” I said, “4am, first of January.”

“Ten rupee here please,” he tapped the cover of an ancient book. Turning its yellowed pages he found my year and the alignment of stars and having quietly studied my details, proclaimed, “Very interesting. You travel far. You discover much. You…” and the guard blew his whistle. I jumped up. Pelting like crazy, I leapt at the door and only just made it before the groaning metal beast increased its speed.

I spotted two boys leaping from a door clutching stolen goods. Streaking through the crowds, ignoring the anguished yells of anger issuing from the speeding train, they darted over several lines of tracks and were instantly lost in a clutter of shacks. Gripped by their audacity, I examined this shanty town huddling the busy railway. Within a makeshift hut a man leaned back as his face was carefully cleaned of shaving cream; the flash of the blade pierced my eyes. Squatting in another rickety shelter a woman was cooking lunch. The alley between those wobbly homes was filled with children at play inches from a drain filled with vile black liquid.

My protagonist is equally stunned as he watches a similar scene when his train leaves Delhi station. Throughout the novel he is haunted by India’s cruel poverty and he seeks a way to help.

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Harsh realities.

Disembarking at Bombay took longer, because, unlike Sati, I had a foreign passport to be processed. She had disappeared by the time I merged with the swelling crowds on the quayside. My head feverous with all the emotion her situation had generated, I wanted to escape the intense chaos of this my first Indian City.

It was easier than I’d thought getting to the imposing Victorian Railway station – there were so many auto-rickshaws and peddled ones that all I had to do was state where I was heading. The apparent anarchy of the roads had some order because my sweating cyclist got me there without incident. However, the milling crowds queuing for tickets stunned me until a kind man showed me the ‘Tourist Counter’.

I was equally unprepared for the madness of jumping on my train north. I managed to claim my seat without too much effort because 2nd Class passengers were given compartments whose small space encouraged more agreeable social behaviour than manifested by the assertive crowds elsewhere.

Far beyond Bombay I slid open the compartment door to go to the loo and budged through crammed bodies clogging the corridor. Encountering a man in dire trouble, I was shocked by the lack of interest of those sitting, squatting or laying around him. My first experience of a public Indian toilet needs no description – think of the very worst you’ve seen and multiply by fifty.

Gasping for breath, I made my way back to the relative comfort of my compartment. The sick man was missing. I asked where he was. Nobody responded. I asked again. A woman pointed out the window. He had died and “somebody tossed him out” the door! Gasping for sanity with images of a burning Sati being shoved out the window, I slumped into my allotted space and wondered why I was seeking Truth in such a brutal country.

Wishing to use the train journey in my novel for another purpose, I set a similar incident upon a normal city street.

a fool arrives in India.

I will skip the many tales of a boggle-eyed busboy grappling with London life. I will leave behind the messes I got myself in to and I will land us upon an elegant ship slowly entering Bombay’s wide harbour.

Inspiring as the city engulfing the passenger liner which had transported me from Africa might be, I looked at the land I had long dreamed of with trepidation. The reason was leaning on the stout railings beside me. ‘Sati’, as I will call her, was weeping silently, knowing she would soon be dead.

Upon leaving Durban I had noted her crying. Come Dar-es-Salaam we were bosom buddies, although I had hoped for more. As we docked in Bombay I tried to get her to stay abroad and return to Kenya with the boat (and me). Sati shook her lovely head,  “The pride of a large, powerful and ancient family is at stake. Who am I against that?”

When her husband had died in Durban, his family had insisted she did the decent thing and follow tradition. Outside of India it wasn’t possible to throw herself on his funeral pyre, and she’d naturally shunned the alternatives. It wasn’t just her classical Indian looks which magnetised me, Sati was intelligent, feisty and great fun.

Ensuring her safe delivery, her husband’s bulky aunt had quickly dismissed me as the fool I looked with hair tumbling over my broad shoulders, hence Sati and I were able to spend time at sea getting to know one another. Come Bombay  we had grown close. Watching the Indian passengers leave first, I couldn’t bear seeing her step on the quay and be grasped firmly by her dead husband’s elders and marched towards the flames which awaited her in some rural backwater.

Sati’s tale inspired me to create a similar character in my novel. However, ‘my’ Sati bore a  less intense, but equally humiliating fate.


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