We were immediately surrounded. Fingers tapped on windows, hands reached out trying to open the, fortunately, locked doors despite us still moving. I shrank back in my seat, a futile act as I had already been spotted, and looked at the driver in wide-eyed fear. We had entered Delhi station, men were standing in front of the car, trying to prevent it from going any further until they had their quarry, namely me. It was terrifying, a wild mania, a sea of red, frantically demanding my attention. The driver grinned and waggled his head,
‘Porters madam, taking bags, no problem.’
I knew that I would need a porter and would be able to find one at the station, they were easy to spot as they all wore red shirts. But, this barrage of fierce determination, bordering on desperation on being the man who would get the white client (and therefore being able to grossly overcharge) was far more ferocious than I had ever imagined. On my previous train journeys in India, I had been accompanied by a guide from our local office, who dealt with all this with, seemingly, nothing more than a casual wave of the hand. This looked like it was going to take nothing short of a Nobel Prize winner to sort out. I was in way over my head.
The driver took my ticket, wound down his window slightly and proffered it to the quickest hand. In the blink of an eye, it had been snatched away and the proud winner, approached me with undisguised glee. The driver then parked and climbing out of the vehicle, indicated that I should also get out as he went round to the boot to unload. Taking a large breath, I cautiously opened the door but the crowd, now that I had determined my porter, was dispersing to look for other prey.
‘How much should I pay him? I asked the driver.
The porter, making the most of this opportunity shouted ‘Do Soh, two hundred, two hundred per bag’ having regained some of my faculties, I quickly calculated that this was four times the normal fee paid by a local. I looked helplessly toward the driver, who just shrugged but then sensing that I was out of my depth, proceeded to do some fierce bargaining and after a few moments smiled at me and said, ‘One hundred madam, just one hundred per bag.’ I was in no position to argue. The porter, a skinny man, who looked to be at least seventy, had already picked up my rucksack which he had placed on his head and having grabbed my other two large suitcases had already wobbled off at an astounding speed, on impossibly bowed legs into the crowd. Fearing that I may never see my bags again, I quickly thanked the driver, threw a tip at him, grabbed my hand luggage and I set off at a jog. However, I immediately became deterred by the melee, this was after all, one of India’s busiest train stations.
There were groups of people, sitting, squatting and eating meals, sleeping on the floor, or rushing from platform to platform. It was hectic, confusing and not for the faint hearted. I now knew why our clients were so cosseted. Rushing to keep my bags in view through the teeming mass of humanity, I took the stairs two at a time. Dodging other precariously balanced porters I followed mine up and down stairs, over platforms, stepped around what appeared to be family gatherings, and vendors hawking everything from books to cucumbers to chai, until the porter all of a sudden stopped dead. He placed my bags on the ground and stood, not even remotely out of breath, looking calmly around him as if he was on a river bank in Oxford searching out a spot for a picnic. I caught up with him, sweating and panting,
‘What’s happening?’ I demanded, ‘Is this the right platform? How do you know?’
He looked at me, his serene expression never wavering, waggled his head and gestured for me to calm down. With that, he squatted down to wait. I paced up and down, peering at the unintelligible signs, trying to figure out if it was the right platform.
I was about to embark on an overnight train journey, a basic experience at the best of times, but I had a job to get to. I asked to look at the ticket. He handed it over without a murmur. It was indecipherable to me. My God, is this what the next few months would be like? I was beginning to realise just how spoilt I had been on my previous visits. As the sales director of a travel company, I could just follow some expert blindly along, out of one air-conditioned vehicle and into an airport or fabulous hotel. I had never had to think about tickets, vouchers, luggage or if I was in the right place. I would just blithely saunter around taking photos and asking inane questions without a care in the world. Jess had been right, this was another world entirely.
I tried asking the porter what the ticket meant, if there was a platform number and if so, where it corresponded with where we were. To no avail. He just did the calming motion with his hand and lit a bede. I looked at my watch, ten minutes to go. I wanted to buy some water but daren’t leave my bags with him. Resigned, I sat down on my rucksack and decided to let fate take its course.
A short while later, the train pulled into the station. The crowd moved en-masse. The porter motioned for me to stay where I was and then as soon as he spied a suitable gap, he shot forward. I was amazed, not only had we been on the right platform, we were standing at the exact spot where the train carriage with my name on a list taped to the door, stopped. The seemingly utter chaos hadn’t been so chaotic after all. I clambered aboard. The porter stowed my luggage, I paid him the 300 rupees and, after a few seconds of looking at me as if to say, ‘Is that all?’ he disappeared back into the crowd.
This was it. The start of my new life in India. I looked around what was to be my accommodation for the next thirteen hours. I was in a second class compartment which consisted of four bunks separated from the main aisle by a grubby, torn nylon curtain on one side and a dirty window, preventing any opportunity from looking out at the view, on the other. My bunk was empty save for a sheet, pillow thousand wash grey but immaculately pressed and a ubiquitous brown blanket. There was a reading light and very little else to recommend it. The entire cabin was cooled down by one, noisy, whirring fan.
The other three bunks were already occupied by men whose eyes nearly popped out of their heads when they saw me. I wondered how long it would take them to come up with the questions that it seems every Indian man has to ask a foreigner, well foreign female anyway. Nearly everyone I had encountered on my travels in India couldn’t resist asking the same three questions. I was just getting my bunk organised, having got out a travel pillow and my trusty beige pashmina, when the first question shot out.
‘What is your country?’ This from the man with an acrylic, sparkly, green tank-top.
‘England,’ I replied. The three of them looked at each other and waggled their heads as if to say, ‘We knew it’. We all smiled awkwardly and I started counting down the seconds until standard question number two arrived.
‘What is your good name?’ This one from the man with half-mast trousers and hideous shoes who had obviously taken courage from sparkly top man.
‘Joanna.’ I replied, using my Sunday name, to the response of more head waggles and attempts to pronounce this strange sound, ‘Zonana, Zzohana, ha.’
So, two out of three standard questions in under a minute, would they manage the third in record time? I didn’t have long to wait to find out. The remaining man with a razor- sharp hair parting and an unresolvable itch around his nether regions completed the triumvirate.
‘You are married?’ Kaboom! There it was. Question number three.
Past experience had taught me that this question doesn’t have the same connotations as it does in the west. You see, Indian women generally speaking do not travel alone. For me as a foreigner, exceptions in attitude were generally made, female and foreign and travelling alone whilst not normal can be accepted as part of a cultural divide. But my response, of ‘No, I am not married,’ had on all of my previous trips, confounded most of Indian society. I had often been told that I looked younger than my thirty six years, but even allowing for this, in India, it is a good ten years over marriageable age.
All three men stared at me, perplexed. However I didn’t have long to consider their astonishment. As the train pulled out of the station, I could hear a commotion above the noise of the engine and looked up to discover that I had an audience. Several families had gathered, the older children were grinning and pointing straight at me. There were several younger children who were cautiously sneaking a peek and then hiding their faces back in their mothers’ saris. The adults were just blatantly gawking at me, pointing and commenting to each other. I smiled and raised my hand in an awkward wave, which caused shrieks from the children and chatter from the ladies. I looked at my compartment companions and shrugged. They just settled back and looked as if they were getting themselves comfortable enough to watch a movie. After five minutes or so, I decided to try to ignore this blatant disregard for my privacy and got out my book and lay down to read. However, concentration amidst such an intrusion proved to be impossible.
The man with the sparkly tank top, sensing my discomfort, decided to intervene and pulled the curtain across. To no avail, it was promptly pulled back again. I was an object of curiosity and the word had spread. However, they were all friendly and, to be fair didn’t worry me, even if it did disturb my rest. Each stop provided a new set of people who were fascinated by the foreigner. As the train rattled on, I was disturbed time and time again. My companions, obviously used to the train experience soon became immersed in their own preoccupations of eating, ear picking and the expelling of bodily gasses and I resigned myself to a sleepless night. It gave me time to reflect over the couple of weeks and the circumstances that had brought me here. It had all happened so quickly and I had my first moment of self-doubt. Had I made the right decision? Had I been too hasty? Might Yank have divorced his wife if I’d stayed, would my job still be there for me when I got back? Would I cope with living in the jungle? OMG! Living in a jungle! What had I done? I felt a momentary panic, and glanced around me looking for an escape route. Of course, there wasn’t one. I was on a train, half way to Madhya Pradesh, the heart of central India and I had committed to being there for six months, there was certainly no going back now.