My India - Chapter 1

Chapter 1 A Long Journey

“Get in quickly, just get in,” I pleaded. Several of us were still on the platform and I could sense the train gathering itself together to depart. I glanced desperately at the door at the far end of the carriage through which our guide and our luggage had vanished. But there was no time to run down there.

“Hurry, hurry,” I urged at the obstinately stationary backs in front of me. Somehow I suppressed the urge to push hard and force the ample backside above me through the narrow doorway. Our boarding was not aided by the high metal steps and a disproportionate number of large people in the group. Things had been moving slowly but steadily and then came to an abrupt halt with several of us still standing on the platform. Carriage doors were slamming, flags were being waved and whistles shrilled. I was still being jostled by the never-ending stream of people that had decanted out of the train on its arrival. Trains were the most popular form of transport here and every day nine thousand passenger trains transported eighteen million passengers across India. A standard passenger train would have eighteen coaches but some popular trains could have as many as twenty-four coaches. Indian Railways, the largest single network in the world, employed one and a half million staff yet not one of them was around to assist in my current predicament.

“Get on, just get on,” I urged. “We can’t,” was the response, “the corridor is blocked.” “Well, get on somehow, go the other way.” I shouted to those standing in the corridor to move further inside and got the same answer; they could not move. I was already having visions of running alongside a moving train and leaping aboard at the last minute. “You have to get on somehow,” I yelled again and the people in front finally sensed the urgency of the situation and pushed themselves into the carriage and then squashed into the space between the carriages allowing the rest of us to scramble aboard just as the train started to move. Although in India it was quite normal to see people hanging on to the side of a train this was not a local custom I was anxious to try just yet.

Avijit, our wildlife guide, was at the far end of the corridor and was already pushing the luggage down the corridor towards the approaching group for them to stow under their seats. This was a recipe for disaster, as the sight of their luggage had distracted those already aboard the train and the hold-up had occurred when one individual had spotted her case, grabbed it, and then pulled it back down the corridor against the flow to stow it under her seat rather than wait until the rest of us were aboard. Result – the corridor was impassable. The hysteria that was generated within some people as soon as their luggage was out of sight was a phenomenon I had never really understood. Despite the fact that I re-assured them constantly that their bags had been collected and I was staying with them until they were loaded into the bus, I still caught sight of people trying to glide past me unseen in order to check their bag was present – some people would check three or four times whenever we were on the move.

Once everyone and the luggage were on board we could begin the process of sorting out who should be sitting where and then reuniting them with their luggage. It was only a four-hour train journey but nevertheless some could not bear to be parted from their case for any time at all. Those who were travelling with large cases were forced to endure a period of separation as the cases would not fit under the seats and had to be stored in the space at the end of the carriage. Avijit heroically offered to stay with them. I later discovered Avijit ‘guarding’ the luggage outside an open carriage door, perched on the metal steps engrossed in an article in the New Statesman.

Sorting out the seating arrangements was further complicated by the fact that our seats were not all together. Train tickets could only be booked six weeks in advance and as it was a ballot system, groups of people were not necessarily with each other. Most of our group were in one carriage but there were four seats in the next carriage. Seats were specified by sex and age which was printed on the tickets and also shown on the seating plan that was attached to each carriage. Anyone sitting in the ‘wrong’ seat could be subjected to close scrutiny when the tickets were meticulously checked by the guard. Sometimes a guard could be persuaded to allow swaps with other passengers, subject to their agreement, but at other times it was not permitted.

My next task was to split the group according to the ticket. Connie, who should have been sitting in the next carriage, was reluctant to be separated from the main group and pleaded with me to take her place. Connie was a very slight and intense lady and constantly worried that she might miss something so being with the minority did not suit her persona. I agreed, secure in the knowledge that Avijit would be with them anyway. Four of us made our way down the corridor and into the next carriage, unhampered by the luggage that we had decided to leave with Avijit and the others. The train was a ‘sleeper’, which meant that the seats were transformed into bunks overnight. When we found the relevant compartment the bunks were still in place so we took advantage of the opportunity to lie down and catch up on some sleep after our early start. As I stretched out on the top bunk my thoughts drifted back to my experiences so far on this, my first trip to India.

My journey to India had started three days earlier although it could be argued it had started during my childhood as my father spoke often of his experiences working in India leading me to visualise a country of searing hot curries and ice-cold gin and tonics. As a child I followed the usual route – school, university, work. I envied those who had a very clear idea of the career they would follow. I had wavered between show-jumper and trapeze artist and when it got to the time to start work I still had no idea what I wanted to do so I readily accepted an opportunity to study for a masters degree; that gave me some breathing space and a chance to pursue my favourite sport, trampolining, using the excellent facilities at Nottingham University.

Finally I ran out of research possibilities and had to join the real world and find a ‘proper’ job. I applied to a local sports centre as an assistant manager and was successful but it was not long before I realised that working in a sports centre reduced the opportunities to pursue one’s own sporting interests to virtually nil. I called the local polytechnic where I had done some part-time teaching and was told they would be appointing full-time lecturers in law and an application form was forwarded to me. I applied. On the day of my interview I was just about to enter the interview room, when I suddenly felt a ladder in my brand new tights making its way up the back of my leg. I was showing a lot of leg having opted for quite a short dress. Trying to enter the room without turning round to show the entire interviewing panel my ladder proved impossible and I managed to catch the strap of my handbag in the handle of the door and slam it in my own face. Once again outside the interview room, I had to start again. Smiling an apology I crept back into the room and side-stepped towards the seat indicated.

The interview seemed to be going well but I was puzzled because I was being asked a lot of basic questions. It was the comment, ‘that is another secret revealed’, and some scribbling on my application form that alerted me to the fact that I had never actually completed it. I had started to fill it in, abandoned it, and then posted it without checking that it had been finished. I was so embarrassed I did not hear the next question and had to request that it be repeated. Hot and flustered I was desperate to get out of the room and when I was finally dismissed I reversed towards the door, intent on hiding the still advancing ladder. I was very surprised to find I was still in with a chance and was directed to a room to wait with other remaining hopefuls. I managed to escape to the cloakroom to remove the offending tights during this interim.

So that was my occupation for the next few years, teaching aspiring lawyers and spending the long summers becoming reasonably proficient at golf. Life got even better when I joined the newly formed research team that reduced my teaching hours and increased my golfing opportunities because now I could work any time I chose provided I produced the requisite number of articles each year. After only two years the rules were changed and I found it hard to adjust to the new regime. I decided it was time to look for a new career and studied to become a solicitor on a part-time basis. It was such hard work that I decided to reward myself with a year off when I finished. But what to do with a year off? As I had always loved travelling I applied to a tour operator to work on a freelance basis escorting groups to worldwide destinations.

I had not expected such a quick response and when I was invited to an interview just four days later and only ten days before my final set of exams I declined, put the telephone back on its rest and returned to my revision. However, I could not concentrate on my task so I called them back and accepted the offer of an interview. Just in time, there was only one space remaining. Two days later I was facing a searching interview and once I had satisfied the tour managers’ supervisor, the next hurdle was convincing the managing director that I could do a job I had never done before.

Clearly I succeeded as I was invited to attend a training weekend. I accepted without realising that it was in Bournemouth two days later. Time was counting down to my exams and the trip would end on the Sunday with exams starting the following day. Dare I sacrifice three more days’ revision? I dared and won. I loved the weekend and enjoyed the challenge of looking after a large group of people in a hotel. A month later, having completed and passed my exams I was on my way to Crete, my first assignment.

Now, ten years later, I was setting off for India, my first opportunity to visit the sub-continent. This journey had started by taking the train into London. I had changed trains at St Pancras and now compared the two experiences. When I got off my train at the mainline station the platform had quickly emptied of passengers all rushing towards the exit. For a brief period I was completely alone. Then one by one more passengers began to arrive. Another train pulled in, people got on, people got off, the platform emptied and silence descended once more. I could see, as the train pulled out, that people were walking down the corridor of the train looking for an empty seat, avoiding all eye and body contact with other passengers. Such a contrast to the situation our group had just experienced in Delhi when the station was constantly host to thousands of passengers all pushing and shoving their way through as they entered or left the platforms. My train journey had been followed by a long and tiring flight, originating at Heathrow, changing planes in Istanbul and finally arriving in Delhi at two in the morning. When I had taken my seat on the plane in Istanbul I had discovered that my neighbour had eschewed all the luxuries of modern life including soap and water and a hairbrush to tame his matted locks. The smell was overpowering and after a few minutes I eased my way past him and went in search of a stewardess. When I explained my predicament and my horror at having to deal with the situation for the next few hours she was sympathetic, and I was offered a seat further down the plane but hesitated because it was not a window seat. My neighbour realised that the seat was close to some acquaintances and before I could say a word had galloped off to claim the empty seat. Now I could breathe fresh air and stretch out across the spare seat beside me.

Luggage reclaim at Delhi International airport was a prime example of India’s chaotic organisation. Information screens were incorrect and as soon as a bag had completed one circuit of the conveyor belt it was removed and guarded by a porter anxious to earn a few rupees. These bags had to be physically wrested from their keepers. Once the group had retrieved all its bags and completed the formalities, a national pastime in India, we made our way to the arrivals hall where our local guide was waiting to escort us to our bus. Despite the hour we went through the usual welcome ritual and each one of us stumbled onto the bus with a lei: a garland of fresh marigold blooms, around our necks. The only advantage of arriving at this early hour was that the roads into Delhi were unusually quiet so our transfer to our hotel, The Claridges, did not take long. We checked in and retreated gratefully to our rooms to get some rest. I had just slipped between my freshly laundered sheets and was drifting off to sleep when the telephone rang. I leapt up convinced one of my group had fallen ill.

“It’s Avijit here,” said a cheery voice. Avijit? Oh yes, I remembered, he was the local guide I had said goodbye to just fifteen minutes ago.

“Can I come up to your room to put the bottles of wine in your fridge for the welcome drink this evening?”

Instantly I was wide awake and panicking. Never before had a local guide suggested he come to my room, let alone in the early hours of the morning. Unable to think of any good excuse not to allow him to use my fridge I agreed, then scrambled out of bed and pulled on some trousers, tucked in my nightshirt and held the door ajar to avoid any bell ringing or door battering that would alert members of my group to my night visitor.

Once the bottles were safely stored I hurried Avijit out of the room and collapsed on the bed. I was now wide awake and unlikely to catch up on any sleep. It was customary on every trip to organise a welcome drink for the group on the first evening but this was usually done through the hotel and consumed in the hotel bar. Avijit had told me that he had organised a large room for me in order to accommodate the whole group for the function. This was going to be embarrassing as generally we were expected to use the smallest room in the hotel. Anxieties fluttered through my head until finally I dozed off.

My phone trilled into life and a disembodied voice suggested that breakfast be brought to my room. I said, no thank you, but I was informed that this had been organised for the whole group so I agreed assuming that this was the ‘late’ breakfast Avijit had requested for us. When breakfast arrived I was asked to sign a bill but refused as I still had time to have breakfast downstairs and I had not ordered it anyway. The tray was taken away and I went back to bed. A few minutes later there was another knock on my door. It was the waiter, still bearing the large tray beautifully laid out with a full English breakfast, complete with a silver cloche on each plate. This time I was told that it was complimentary. It would have been churlish to refuse so I accepted and ate a small amount of the very congealed meal. By now it was time to get ready to meet some of my companions to go out exploring.

I stepped out of the main entrance and into another world. In front of me tables and chairs shaded by large white umbrellas or small marquees were spread out on a beautiful green lawn, reminiscent of colonial days. Immediately outside the entrance a long row of black, lime green and yellow Austin A35s waited patiently for potential customers and as soon as we set foot on the pavement we were hailed by rickshaw owners offering us a ride to wherever we wanted to go. We had decided to walk for a while so we declined all offers and set off along the wide tree-lined residential road. We were in the VIP area and each white bungalow was set in luxuriant gardens and surrounded by a red brick wall that signified no parking and no protests. Our hotel was not far from the famous Race Course Road where the Prime Minister of India had his residence. Security was very high here with guards on the gate and CCTV systems. When the bungalows were originally built by the British for army personnel each one was built on a plot of one thousand square yards and now they were all preserved by conservation orders. The British had not been prepared to compromise on their life style and currently politicians, embassies and wealthy businessmen were profiting from their obstinacy.

Just around the corner on Tees January Marg (marg means road) we found Birla Bhavan (Birla House) that had been converted to a museum, Gandhi Smriti, dedicated to the great Gandhi. It was here that the Mahatma spent the last weeks of his life. We whiled away an hour wandering around the grounds where footprints cast in red sandstone recorded his last walk to his daily prayer meeting in the gardens. A simple sandstone pillar, the Martyr’s Column, marked the place where Gandhi, the ‘Father of the Nation’, was assassinated. Visiting this memorial was a great introduction to the country we were about to tour. We strolled around the grounds and walked through an arcade lined with posters representing the history of India. The rooms in the house that he used had been preserved as they were during his occupation and illustrated his austere existence. Finally we inspected a series of glass cases where dolls depicted important events in Gandhi’s life. It was a very enjoyable and rewarding visit.

Later, as instructed in our itinerary, we had met Avijit in reception for our first official excursion. As the focal point of our trip was finding tigers I had expected it would include an element of wildlife but did not expect our first experience of it to happen in the centre of Delhi. Our coach took us to the Okhla Barrage where we were going to do some bird watching. The Okhla Barrage was a dam on the River Yamuna that had created a lake behind it. We approached the wetlands of this area through Kalindi Kunj, a famous public garden located on the banks of the river and close to the barrage. We soon discovered that Avijit was a more than enthusiastic bird watcher as he rushed from bush to tree searching for birds. This park was very popular, as they all were in Indian cities, but it was also a favourite meeting place for courting couples and we saw more lovebirds than any other species, which some of the group found more interesting than the feathered variety. Initially we were entranced by the sight of brilliantly coloured sunbirds flitting around the beautiful blooms on the trees but it was not long before the novelty wore off, especially when we had to scramble through a fence to walk along a track by the wetlands peering at dark specks on the water eagerly identified by our guide. The group was rapidly losing interest but Avijit, happily scrambling down banks and peering through reeds in search of a Blue Throat (that was not blue at that time of the year) was oblivious to the dragging feet, heavy sighs and mutinous mutterings. One of my roles was to temper guides’ enthusiasm to clients’ tolerance levels but Avijit seemed to be immune to all light-hearted suggestions that raptors flying a mile above us were very low priority compared to relaxing over a drink before dinner.

On our return to The Claridges several members of our group decided to sample a gin and tonic outside, colonial style. One became two and when the sun finally went down they retreated inside to the hotel bar. At the appointed hour for the welcome drink they were notable for their absence. The rest of the group had obediently arrived on time clutching a glass from their bathrooms, a better alternative to the small plastic cups provided by Avijit. They were now perched on chairs or the edge of my extremely large double bed, liberally sprinkled with colourful cushions, politely sipping white wine and making small talk. I kept glancing anxiously at my watch as we were due in the restaurant downstairs in the foyer of our hotel in half an hour and I did not want to lose our tables. I needed to go through the itinerary with everyone so I went to look for the missing members of my group. I did not have to go far as I could hear their voices drifting up the wide wooden staircase from the bar below. As soon as they caught sight of me they gathered up their drinks and followed me sheepishly back to my room. This sobriety did not last long because as soon as I opened the door they began to roll around the room giggling uncontrollably. Nina, in particular, was good at rolling, being short and rotund, with a brilliant sense of humour to match. Under these circumstances it was not easy to hold an information meeting but amazingly they soon calmed down and everyone accepted the programme I suggested for the next few days. I managed to impart all the necessary information before Nina announced that my bathroom was bigger than her entire bedroom. She seemed to find that extremely funny, as did the rest of her cronies, and they all collapsed laughing, bringing the meeting to an abrupt end.

It was a timely end however, and we made our way downstairs to dinner. The hotel had an excellent Indian restaurant and, as everyone had been clamouring to try genuine Indian food, I had reserved tables for us. I was not really familiar with Indian food apart from curries so I followed the advice of the waiter who recommended the day’s special, butter chicken, a popular Indian dish made the same way as a curry with the addition of some butter to the gravy. It was delicious – tender pieces of chicken in a creamy tomato sauce on a bed of plain rice. Large baskets of fresh, warm nan bread were placed on the table. This simple bread made with plain flour bound with yogurt and water and traditionally baked on the side of a tandoor – a clay oven used to cook tandoori chicken – was heavenly and soon became a favourite of the group, especially when brushed with melted butter or ghee before it was served. That morning I had been up and dressed by the time the wake-up call was due and ready to sprint down to reception if it did not happen. On the rare occasions when the calls were not made I had to act quickly, either making them myself or running from room to room pounding on doors until I received an answer. This particular morning the early call was not a problem and I had time to snatch a very quick breakfast before I had to station myself in the lobby to check off the cases as the porters brought them down. Inevitably there would be some bags missing and I would have to send the porter back to knock on the miscreants’ doors. Despite having told them to do this anyway they still came all the way back down to the lobby to seek permission each time they needed to do so, a typical Indian courtesy. Once all the bags were accounted for, the bus was summoned and loaded. Then I had to remind the group, most of whom were indulging in a more leisurely breakfast than our itinerary allowed, that our departure was imminent.

While dealing with the luggage I also had to make sure everyone was up and had paid their bills. Everything was going smoothly that morning, just one person missing, but at least her bag was safely stowed in the boot of the bus. Within minutes Lucy appeared and raced towards the bus, a harassed receptionist chasing after her. As she jumped on board she told me that she had paid her bill but the receptionist said she had not, so I was requested to deal with it. It seemed that Lucy had eaten a packet of biscuits that were in a basket on top of the bar without realising they had to be paid for. It was easier to pay myself rather than prolong the argument and our delay but I made a note on my constantly growing list of ‘things to tell the group’ that items in baskets in rooms were not ‘gifts’ from the hotel management.

Once on our way we were soon battling through the early morning traffic as we headed for the station. Already the streets were crammed with trucks rushing to beat the curfew imposed on them in the city centre. It was a weekday morning and as we approached Delhi station we edged our way round a melee of assorted vehicles and then worked our way through a sea of green and yellow automated rickshaws waiting for fares before we finally stopped in an area packed with people, stalls and stationary vehicles including rickshaws, auto rickshaws, bicycles, hand carts, cars and buses. Avijit had told us to get off the bus and wait in a place that appeared to be a huge daily market. We huddled together for safety as the bustle of everyday life in Delhi crashed around us.

Fascinated yet fearful of losing each other we watched as hand carts laden with merchandise pushed their way past us and rickshaws weaved their way in and out of the crowds surging past us. Our luggage was now on the ground and surrounded by a group of porters who seemed to have materialised from nowhere and were now engaged in earnest negotiations regarding the transfer of our bags to the platform. Each porter wore a red jacket – well, they had started out as red – and carried a length of material, either hanging round their necks or wrapped round their fists. They had all become very animated as the discussions continued regarding the price per piece of luggage and the number of porters required to transport all the bags. Eventually accord was reached and those who were surplus to requirements strode grimly away.

The lengths of material were coiled on heads and the process of loading began. We gasped in amazement when one porter bravely tackled the largest case and then agreed to have a second case placed on top of it. We expected his head to disappear tortoise-style into his neck but it did not and he jauntily marched off through the crowds. Others hoisted suitcases on their heads then slung holdalls on their shoulders.

Avijit accompanied the porters and I stayed with the group. We had a local escort to lead us to the right platform. Following instructions received earlier from Avijit I told the group to keep close to our escort, to keep moving and not to stop and take photos under any circumstances. I knew this would be difficult as I myself was itching to get my camera out to record this daily phenomenon that made London’s Waterloo seem like a stroll in the park. I concentrated on shepherding the group from behind as we stumbled across the uneven dusty ground, skirting round obstacles in our way. Losing someone in this area would be a disaster and keeping an eye on everyone was not easy in this sea of humanity. Wave upon wave rolled towards the station, a distant building beyond hundreds of bobbing heads.

All was going well until Anna succumbed to the temptation of recording these frantic scenes on her digital camera. By now we were approaching the station building and ahead of me I saw our escort ascending the steps to the walkway above the platforms. I was also watching my stray who had stopped short of the steps and was now zigzagging through the throng chasing photographic opportunities. Anna was one of the larger ladies in the group; she was tall and well built and amazingly fleet of foot I had just discovered. I urged her to keep up.

“Just a minute,” she muttered, totally oblivious to the possibility of getting lost. A train had just arrived and disgorged hundreds of passengers who soon filled the widening gap between us and our group. Our escort, having reached the level platform of the walkway, was no longer distinguishable amongst the throng of people. Fortunately Janine was very tall and I could just pick out her turquoise scarf receding into the distance. She had become my beacon whenever I became distanced from the group.

Every group I have accompanied has had at least one Happy Snapper and one Serious Photographer. The latter was unlikely to get lost due to the length of time taken to capture one image. The former however flitted from one subject to another like a kitten chasing a butterfly. In this group I had two Happy Snappers, both of whom would go off in opposite directions and become so completely engrossed in chasing photo opportunities that they were always late back at the meeting point, much to the chagrin of the rest of the group who would have been waiting for them. I had soon learnt that I had to try to keep an eye on both of them as it was easy to get lost in the crowded streets. Once an image had been captured it had to be checked and approved before the next one was taken, thus negating the advantage of digital photography, that is, that images could be deleted, preferably later in the privacy of a hotel bedroom. Not only did the image have to be checked immediately, it then had to be shown to anyone who happened to be nearby. It seemed the absence of an audience generally alerted the Happy Snapper to the fact that maybe they should be somewhere else.

The Serious Photographer was more likely to be left behind as he (or she) assessed the shot to be taken, changed lenses, took some photographs, checked them, then took some more. My own interest in photography had to take second place to the need to be watching the antics of my Happy Snappers and checking that the Serious Photographer was keeping in touch with the group. Sometimes the group would deal with an extreme situation themselves. The slow handclap greeting a late arrival back at the bus was generally very effective. Occasionally an individual in the group would have the courage to point out that it was unfair to keep everyone waiting. Very rarely everyone else would decide there was no need to stick to the timetable as they would have to wait at the meeting point anyway and this attitude seriously jeopardised our sightseeing programme. It was then that I would feel obliged to deal with the situation and publicly entreat everyone to return to the bus on time. I hated having to do this as I generally managed to make the announcement just as someone arrived late for the first time on that trip and I was subjected to sotto voce comments about having been ‘told off’ for the rest of the trip.

“Come on, we are losing the others,” I pleaded, desperately. It was hard standing my ground as yet more people surged around me, cases balanced on shoulders providing yet more obstacles to be avoided. Avijit had all our tickets and I had no idea which platform our train departed from. When the public address system burst into life, which it did every few minutes, the announcements were incomprehensible. My stray was oblivious to our plight; like a lion stalking its prey, she moved determinedly from one photo opportunity to the next.

Keeping my eye on her I pushed my way up the steps in the hope of finding a vantage point from which I could see both my stray and our group. It was a relief to see them begin the descent to a platform. I checked the number and then turned back to find Anna. I was momentarily distracted by the sight of a padlock and chain vendor who was actually wearing all the items for sale – they must have weighed a ton. He gave me a cheery grin as he plodded by. My thoughts had wandered and so had Anna. There was no sign of her. She had been swallowed up in the crowd. I clawed my way through the advancing masses that jostled and pushed against me. I was working on the principle that if I could get back to the place where I last saw her I would be able to find her. There was no sign of her. Desperately, balanced on tiptoe, I scanned the area around me. Ah, there she was, chasing after a family of pigs that were rooting through the piles of rubbish that littered the platforms. “Come on or we will miss the train. You can take pictures when we get to the platform, there are pigs everywhere.” Indeed, not just pigs but cows grazing on the railway line itself and rats scuttling between the sleepers. Reluctantly she abandoned the chase and we made our way up the steps, along the walkway and down to our platform. By now Avijit and our luggage had joined the group. He and the porters had used a different entrance. Avijit was immediately aware of our absence. My desperation was mirrored in his face but it soon turned to annoyance when he caught sight of me and my camera-toting stray. Avijit had yet to learn that English tourists could be very obstinate in the pursuit of their own interests.

“Next time,” I hissed, “at least tell me the platform number.” Avijit worked on a need-to-know basis, founded on his idea of what I needed to know. It had never occurred to me that it may have been necessary to phone my local guide during the simple procedure of walking from a bus to a station. At least we had exchanged numbers already although I subsequently discovered we could not actually communicate as he could not make international calls from his mobile and mine was an English number.

Finally we were all together and not just on the right platform but in the right place on the platform. The trains were so long that you had to be in the place where your carriage stopped as there was no time to walk up and down the train looking for your seats. We had two minutes to board sixteen people and sixteen suitcases. I had to get the people on the train through the door at one end of the carriage while Avijit and the porters loaded the luggage through the door at the other end.

The tannoy burst into life and cackled for a few seconds. Our train was late which meant there was time for the group to take some photographs. Across the rails a large group of Indians were seated on the platform enjoying their first meal of the day. Around them people slept on the hard ground wrapped up like bundles of cloth. Small stalls offered snacks and soft drinks and the ‘chai’ man strolled up and down with his urn and stack of small paper cups – five rupees a time. I turned my nose up at it when it was offered to me having learnt the constituents – a mixture of milk, sugar and hot water that was poured onto a tea bag in a very small cardboard or plastic cup. Some people were braver than I was and declared it to be palatable.

Three old men who had never seen English people before stood and stared at us, unblinking in the flash of light as we recorded their curiosity. A ‘dingdong’ heralded yet another stream of unfathomable information that Avijit translated as the imminent arrival of our train. He repeated his instructions for boarding the train – people one end, bags the other. I nodded as he stressed the importance of just getting everyone on board and then sorting out seating later. What could be difficult about that, I thought, but nevertheless I gathered the group around me and repeated the instructions as the train lumbered in and all the waiting passengers surged towards it. Being totally unaware of the numbering system on the carriages I had to wait for Avijit to indicate our carriage and then I led the group to the relevant door and told them to board quickly and just sit down anywhere.

Refreshed by a good sleep I was ready to tackle our disembarkation from the train and made my way back to join the others. Avijit had said he would come and find me when it was time to move the luggage to one end of the carriage as we would have to move quickly to get all the bags and all the people off the train when we arrived at Sawai Madhopur. However, when he had made his way down the train to talk to us, all he had found was four sleeping beauties. Miraculously, it seemed to me, the porters were in our carriage before the train had completely stopped. As they began to unload our bags I ushered the group off the train through the door at the other end of the carriage. Our escort was there waiting and we followed him past the third-class railway carriages that were crammed with people and then through the usual jumble of different modes of transportation to our waiting vehicle.

A few days later we took our second train journey which was a ‘chair’ train and an entirely different experience as we relaxed in very comfortable seats and used the electric sockets to re-charge camera and mobile phone batteries. Again the seats were pre-allocated but this time the group were ready to get on and worry about where they sat later. When I arrived in our compartment everyone was on their feet and Nina was re-arranging them in order to allocate herself the only window seat facing the direction in which we were travelling. Nina was certainly a lady who liked to have her own way. I watched in amazement as everyone submitted to this manoeuvre based on Nina’s apparent propensity to travel sickness if she was not sitting by the window and facing the right direction. But Nina was a natural leader and it was all done with a lightness of touch that seemed to make people unaware of what was happening. Some groups were sympathetic in such circumstances but others were not so understanding and not willing to sacrifice an opportunity to sit by a window or at the front of the bus or safari jeep. If there was more than one sufferer from travel sickness I had to start drawing up rotas to prevent two sufferers travelling in the same jeep! Some afflictions were soon forgotten if it became apparent that the front seat was not always the ‘best’ seat because, for example, it was lower than the seats at the back and therefore there was not such a good view of the animals. Once everyone had settled in their seats this relatively short journey of four hours passed without incident. Despite having only two minutes to disembark when we arrived at our destination we were now well practised and within seconds we and our bags were on the platform. These experiences of travelling on Indian trains were to stand me in good stead for future adventures on the train and, in particular, overnight journeys. Our first one took us from Agra to Varanasi and began at the end of a rather trying day of sightseeing in Agra. Avijit was, quite rightly, sticking to the itinerary but had not factored in long delays due to road works as the result of the construction of a dual carriageway. Nor had he appreciated the fact that the itinerary he was following took us back and forth along the same road several times that day. My normally calm demeanour spiralled out of control when I began to recognise the graffiti on the temporary traffic lights and I marched down the bus and plonked myself next to Avijit who was enjoying a peaceful nap at the time. I told him that fascinating though it was to watch the traffic around us, two hours was enough, four hours was tedious and six hours was stretching everyone’s patience. To Avijit this was an everyday fact of his life and he did not, as yet, understand the Englishman’s need to know journey times (generally related to the next toilet opportunity) and to arrive at the destination on time. Avijit happily predicted journey times based on empty roads – an unlikely situation in this country. The third time we travelled down the same road, re-tracing our steps to the railway station, Avijit announced there was no time to stop anywhere for dinner so we collected a packed meal from the restaurant where we had earlier eaten lunch. Having arrived at the station with an hour to spare we stayed on our bus and ate our packed dinner. Had we known it included chips we would have eaten them at once but we had assumed it would be sandwiches and biscuits. Cold, soggy chips dipped in tomato sauce caused much hilarity, the time passed quickly and we were soon following our escort to the station a short distance down the road. The group was in good spirits and embracing the experience of travelling through India, for now.

Stations at night were very different from during the day. So many people were curled up asleep on the ground around the entrance that we had to pick our way through them as we followed our guide in an orderly fashion. There was not an inch of space in the waiting rooms which were also crammed with somnolent bodies and we skirted round them finally emerging on the platform that was bustling with people. Teetering piles of boxes containing freight already occupied most of the available space and even more were arriving stacked up on hand carts that moved slowly down the platform pushing through the milling throng so people were constantly jumping, or being nudged, out of the way. The wicked-looking metal hooks that were used to manoeuvre the huge boxes into position ensured a speedy reaction from anyone who got in the way. Negotiations for porterage had been completed while we waited on the bus and our luggage arrived at the same time as we did.

The train was late and we waited patiently, tension mounting as we speculated on the night ahead of us. Finally a siren indicated the imminent arrival of the train and four bright lights appeared in the darkness beyond the end of the platform. The noise was incredible as the carriages lumbered by grinding slowly to a halt. It took five minutes to get all the people and cases on board but this passed without incident and everyone just sat on the nearest bunk and lifted their feet out of the way, waiting for luggage to be stowed and bunks allocated. As this was my first experience of an overnight journey I had not appreciated, when I had allocated the berths, that some of the beds were smaller than others and the largest members in the group did not fit on the bunks that lined the corridors. Nor could they clamber into the top bunks in the cabins! Also, rather then having whole cabins to ourselves we had just two bunks in some of the four-berth cabins. I had to do some quick thinking. As our train had originated in Jodhpur there were already passengers on board and the corridors were jammed with people and bags and, in particular, a group of back-packers most of whom were in the wrong place and pushed their way past us not once but twice, dealing us bruising blows with the huge rucksacks strapped to their backs. Trying to distribute our bags to their owners against this constant impatient flow was a nightmare but finally all the bags were stowed and now we just had to worry about the people. We were spread all over the carriage and some people were unhappy about sharing cabins with strangers but as the other passengers were already in their bunks there was very little room for manoeuvre regarding swaps to keep the group together. One very noisy group was eating dinner in one of the cabins and one of them was sharing a two-berth cabin with Connie, who was not at all happy about the situation. Avijit began negotiations to try and get the boy to swap with me as I was at the far end on my own. Negotiations were very lengthy and it was an hour before it was agreed that I could change places with him. Then, after the lengthy and loud discussion he and his father got off at the very next station.

Novelty value on this first overnight experience went a long way to easing the situation and also the fact it was quite early in the trip meant no hard and fast alliances had yet been formed. I had asked the group to sort themselves into pairs so that each pair contained one person who wanted to sleep on a lower bunk and one prepared to take an upper bunk. Trying to keep the sexes separate was not an option but I doubted that anyone would be stripping down to pyjamas to sleep. Wrong. Lucy had brought her own sleeping bag and winceyette pyjamas and simply scrambled onto a top bunk, changed, buried herself in her sleeping bag and slept through the night. Most of the group were too excited to go to bed straightaway so we sat chatting for a while. Indian passengers joined in, happy to hear about our experiences to date and recommend places we should visit. It was all very relaxed and pleasant. Then, disaster. A mouse appeared from under one of the bunks, sat up, regarded us for a while and then scampered across the cabin and disappeared under the opposite bunk. Bags were dragged out and I was requested to flush it out and get rid of it. Dutifully I got down on my hands and knees to investigate. No sign of it so I was able to report that it had gone and replaced the bags. Feet were finally lowered to the ground. I realised that ensued that top bunks were now going to be the most popular on our next night-time journey.

As the train thundered through the night, silence had gradually descended, apart from one cabin where the rowdy group continued to make a noise and although they calmed down eventually, the murmur of voices could be heard until the early hours. The final straw was when one of their number began to do breathing exercises followed by meditation with long, loud drawn out ‘ohms’. Not daring to sleep with so much going on, I had patrolled our carriage several times through the night and finally decided to get up at six o’clock. This was not easily accomplished as I had to swing down from the bunk via a foothold on the rail of the bunk opposite. I crept along the narrow corridor and settled down on the iron steps by an open carriage door.

Soon afterwards the chai man went by so I was able to get a welcome cup – I was now relishing this Indian speciality. The fresh air revived me and I watched the countryside racing by, enjoying the spectacle of the sun rising above the mist-shrouded fields. It was wonderful; the morning air on my face was most welcome after a night cooped up on the top bunk with no window. At some stations a man got on the train with his urn and cups and walked up and down the train shouting ‘chai’ – although should anyone prefer coffee he could usually oblige. At other stations the chai man walked along outside the carriage announcing his presence to anyone awake by knocking on the window. From my perch I watched India waking up. Early risers already on their way to work cycled along the track by the railway line. The railway line carved its way across the countryside alongside a small river where birds were pecking around the water or flitting between the fronds of the elephant grass. The agricultural landscape rushed by, clump after clump of elephant grass and the occasional very dusty castor oil plant.

People were stirring by now and stretching stiffened limbs. Blankets and sheets were collected up and stowed on the shelves at the end of the compartments. Top bunks were raised and secured transforming the lower bunks into seats for everyone and we settled down to while away the last two hours of the journey. The time we should have arrived in Varanasi had already passed as the train was running two hours late. There had been several lengthy stops through the night and more were to come as trains running late had to give way to those running on time, thus making them even later.

All the cases had been dragged to one end of the carriage and we were ready, and anxious, to disembark. We were so nearly there, just outside the station and the train stopped yet again as we had to wait for a platform. Thirty minutes passed and then we started to move, very slowly. Unbelievably we stopped again. Some passengers got off the train and walked the short distance to the station along the track. Sadly not an option for us with all our luggage. We sat back, sighing, then finally we limped on and this time we continued all the way to our platform. As it was the end of the line there was no rush to get off so the porters took the opportunity to engage in lengthy negotiations regarding the price of porterage for our bags. Finally turbans were wound onto heads and the luggage was taken off the train.

Our final train journey on the tour took us from Bandhavgarh (Umaria) back to Delhi and now that everyone knew what to expect a lot of plotting was going on within the group regarding who was sleeping with whom and where. I was bombarded with requests regarding lower and upper bunks and not sleeping in the same cabin as particular people. I had my own problems as during the trip we had been involved in a small collision driving through the back streets of Varanasi and I was suffering with back ache. Despite my concerns I was looking forward to this journey as it was the night of Diwali and my only experience of this popular Hindu tradition to date had been a drive through Leicester. Then, I had not known what was going on as I drove along streets lined with sari shops and decorated with fairy lights and tinsel even though it was only October. I just assumed that Christmas had arrived early in Leicester. Now I was going to experience this festival first hand in the country of origin.

It was early evening when we left our lodge and started our two-hour drive to the station at Umria. First stop was in the local village to buy crisps and snacks. The brightly lit shops were crowded and everyone seemed to be gathering in the street and exchanging greetings. Our journey to the railway station had been enchanting.

Through the black night we could see pin-pricks of light as we approached pockets of habitation. We passed through villages lit up with lots of small oil lamps that outlined individual buildings and the paths leading up to them. Diwali means ‘festival of lights’ or more literally ‘row of lights’ and that originated from the tradition of decorating houses, shops and public places with small earthenware lamps called diyas. These lamps were usually fuelled with mustard oil and were arranged in rows to help Lakshmi, a popular Hindu goddess believed to bestow wealth and prosperity, to find her way through the open doors and windows of people’s homes. As the festival usually fell in October it was also a good opportunity to celebrate a successful harvest. It had become a time to buy and exchange gifts, traditionally sweets and dried fruits and, more recently, an excuse for serious shopping and present-giving as well as the purchase of new clothes and re-decoration of homes. Diwali seemed to be all things to all people, a time of celebration, a time to renew commitments, start businesses, start the new accounting year, but above all it was a public holiday for everybody. Its origins celebrated the triumph of good over evil as illustrated by the Ramayana, the most popular mythological story in India. This story – often read at home, in temples and acted out in plays – concerned an incarnation of Lord Vishnu who came to earth as Rama to destroy Ravana, the ten-headed king of Lanka. During his adventures on earth Rama married Sita and was exiled from his kingdom for fourteen years but finally with the help of the monkey god, Hanuman, he triumphed and killed Ravana in a fierce battle. He was now free to return to his kingdom, Ayodhya, but there was no moon the night he came home so people lit their homes with diyas to light the way for him.

On arrival at the station we had discovered that as no one wanted to work that day there were only five porters to carry our luggage so the group had to help by trundling the bags along the platform themselves. However, it also meant that the trains were comparatively empty. We should have been spread over two carriages but once on board Avijit was able to get us all in the same carriage, as yet empty apart from us. I had already allocated the bunks but told people to move around if they wished, causing a sudden swing in favour of bottom bunks. Connie volunteered to take the solitary bunk at the end of the carriage as she was still smarting from an argument a few days earlier with Lucy.

Lucy had changed tactics for this journey and had mixed herself a litre of vodka and tonic in a water bottle which she then sipped continuously on the platform while waiting for the train. Unaware of the contents of the bottle she was clutching, I had just wondered in passing why mineral water was having such a strange effect on her as she was getting very giggly. This turned to aggression when I announced my bunk allocations, carefully thought out to cater for size and friendship. She refused, just before we boarded, to accept the berth she had been allocated because it was one of two bunks in the corridor. She and her companion insisted on taking the two bunks in a cabin that only had two bunks that I had allocated to myself and William who was too big for the corridor bunks. Once everyone was settled Lucy then complained because they were in a cabin on their own right at the end of the carriage and had no one else to talk to. They could easily have moved to join people in another cabin but for some reason that did not seem to be an option. William had to sleep in an upright position as he simply could not fit himself onto the narrow bunk but he was not the complaining type. Unfortunately when we reached our destination Lucy was very sick and I had to help her off the train. She did not take long to recover and was soon very vociferous about the smell in the toilet on the train that she claimed had caused her to be ill.

Frank had been talking incessantly about the anticipated smell in the toilets and requested that I ask the train attendant to clean the toilets regularly. In fact it was not his job as this was done in the stations when the train stopped for a while. Indians were very clear about who does what regarding jobs. Despite the fact the caste system was illegal it nevertheless still existed regarding menial tasks that were still considered the responsibility of the untouchables. However, I did not point this out – just smiled and said I would pass on the request. I did suggest that he use the Indian toilets. All the trains had both Indian and Western toilets and although the former were just a hole in a ceramic or stainless steel surround they were usually very clean, better cared for than the Western equivalent. However, I knew that Frank was too fastidious to accept this alternative.

The grumbles continued for a long time so I went and sat at the far end of the carriage in the empty guard’s seat and waited until everyone had settled down. I had done my best but some of them were creators of their own discomfort. I could see the lights of Diwali and it was a magical experience speeding through the night watching the celebrations across the countryside.

When it seemed that everyone had bedded down I hauled myself up onto one of the empty top bunks. Then my back went into spasm. I was just wondering how to deal with the problem when Avijit came by and stopped when he saw my light on to ask if I was okay. By then I could hardly breathe and told him I was suffering, hoping he might be able to get some painkillers from someone in the group.

Avijit had another, rather novel idea. His solution was to get up on my narrow bunk and give me a massage! He scrambled up into the small space and managed to perch behind me. He kept telling me to relax but the whole problem was that I could not relax. At some point, Janine drifted by and enjoyed the spectacle of me flat on my face and Avijit straddling my bunk trying to massage my back. Janine was swapping bunks and had now joined the men so that Anna, who was claustrophobic, did not have to have a bunk lowered down above her. Janine was a doctor and had a very easy-going personality, always ready to help anyone who was struggling. I had a lot of explaining to do the next morning but as Janine was now alerted to my plight (I had not wanted to trouble her) she was able to supply some strong painkillers that, when they kicked in, gave me great relief.

Our train journey continued through the morning until two o’clock that afternoon and we had to pick up our packed breakfast at one of the stations we passed through. I was ready for this stop in good time which was just as well because at the next station Anna jumped off the train as soon as it stopped because her claustrophobia had become too much. I raced after her and had to try and persuade her to get back on the train as she stood sobbing on the platform.

Someone fetched Avijit who just stood in the doorway in his sock-clad feet and watched us on the platform. Somehow I had to get Anna back on the train before it left the station so I had one eye on Avijit as I pleaded with her to get back on board. Reluctantly she climbed back on to the train and someone in the group lent her an iPod to listen to some recorded books to help pass the time. During the morning word also got around about my injured back and there was much hilarity regarding Avijit’s attempt to give me a massage in the cramped space of the top bunk. The group were generally very solicitous. Of course I could have had a bottom bunk if only they had known.

Author: Valery Collins, © 2013