Saturday 31 January 2015

The Mandovi Express

I don’t know how many people were on the train today, but let’s assume it was a lot more than any other train I've taken in my life. I’m all for slumming it with the locals (the theory), but an eleven-hour train journey is not the place for that, and in a lucky twist I end up with a first class sleeper cabin all to myself (the practice). RESULT.

However, my first thought when the cheery guard slides the door shut is of the words of my friend Max, who spent five days straight on a train from Beijing to Moscow: “Now I know what prison must feel like.” Trains and prisons: they both have guards....

Such gloomy thoughts, and it’s still dark outside when the old iron beast shudders itself from its slumber and reluctantly rolls out of Victoria Terminus like a long, lazy snake. As night turned to day, my breakfast arrived (although I’d already devoured an erratically acquired bag of crisps and some inappropriately named “Happy Happy” biscuits). And as I tucked into delicious spicy potato fritters wrapped in slices of buttered white bread, I was treated to my first ever sight, there in the hazy light of dawn, of a grown man defecating in public.

There are 115,000kms of railway tracks in India, and shitting between them, or simply throwing your rubbish onto them, is apparently considered a public duty. 115,000kms of railroad - that’s nearly three times round the equator - linking up this vast country and transporting over 8 billion passengers a year, and every last inch of it is heaped in shit. Maybe everyone figures that since the toilets flush straight on to the tracks anyway, they might as well join in. If only they treated this sort of behaviour with the same severity reserved for travelling sans ticket which could net you either a £10 fine or six months in prison.

Breakfast precipitates an immediate need to sleep. I lay there, train rocking from side to side, the chassis of the carriage rumbling over the tracks just a few feet beneath me, a nineteenth century air con unit vibrating itself to bits in between, and faltered in and out of slumber. In one of those moments that straddle the boundaries of consciousness, I became aware that I was just a body.

One body, on a train filled with bodies. One train, in a country filled with trains. One country, on a planet filled with countries. And somehow the fact that I am foreign, and a long way from home, seems completely irrelevant when you look at it like that. I imagined my carriage as a bird might view it, far up in the sky, looking down on the train, but getting further and further away as we rolled on, perspective widening and the thin finger of metal seeming less and less significant the further away it got. And inside, I was still just a body, huddled in some corner. Baggage.

This didn’t depress me remotely, but when I woke, I was in a lighter mood. Day was in full flow and the sun was shining bright. I stretched my legs at a few stations, and hung out of the open door to let the hot wind bake my skin as the most beautiful countryside tumbled by.

I read, and wrote, and ate and slept. If there had been bars instead of a door I’d have played chess with the guy in the carriage next to me. (Actually, having spoken to him later, maybe not). And then I thought of the Simone Weil quote about the two prisoners in adjacent cells who learn to communicate with one another by tapping on the wall; “The wall is the thing that separates them, but it is also their means of communication,” she writes, “Every separation is a link.” 

And then I stopped thinking because I think I’d been in there too long, and anyway day had turned back into night by now, and it was gone half past seven when we arrived in Madgaon. I felt sort of intoxicated by the journey, so I made my way to the beach, drank a couple of very cold, very large beers, before collapsing in my hut where the sound of the Arabian Sea crashing into the sand sent me quickly off to sleep....

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