The yellow and black taxi sputters and chokes, pulling in front of the entrance. Several members of the hotel staff collect on the front drive to see me off. The smartly dressed doorman wearing his crisp whites and red turban waits, holding open the car door; his eyes reach me with a sparkle of amusement and warm dose of something that feels like approval, likely for my transportation choice. Before stepping inside I press both hands together in front of my chest and slightly bow my head in respect and make no attempt to suppress the smirk on my face.
The cab spurts and grumbles to a start and sets out through the metal security gates. My driver appears well stocked with pan masala (chew tobacco) and his navigational acumen also looks to be in check. The tide on this ride turns as the honkers become the honkees. Once hammering on his horn and happily yelling in Hindi at the cha-cha (uncle) stopped in front of us, our momentum stalls and in a matter of seconds the vehicle grinds to a crawl. The driver begins shifting the gears in mad intervals, to no avail. Cars are quickly waved past to accommodate the increasing volume of beeping.
It was strongly suggested by the hotel to leave two or three hours prior to the train’s departure. Because of this I have plenty of time to sit back and enjoy the show; within minutes a new taxi is hailed. Words are exchanged. Money moves hands. The backpack is lifted from trunk to trunk. Off again.
Travel through India requires acclimation. Last year’s trip included thousands of kilometers clocked by bus. It was fascinating, and quickly became my favorite mode of transport. Inside each coach a different world of changing passengers performed in a private show. Outside, the scents of masala spices lifted from simmering street food. People. Heat. Cows. Buying. Selling. Noise. Windows opened to the streaming passage of time, portals of saturated living canvases.
This is, year of the locomotive.
The taxi arrives at the Kolkata train station; heaps of people cover every square meter. Men look dirty, ragged, hot and tired, having spent the night where they now sit. No one asks for money as I approach. Rickshaws, askew on the rocks, drivers sprawled over the back seats still asleep. A break in the human blanket out front leads inside where a softer version of the same scene is throbbing. Women and children are spread under the station roof. They sleep on thin sheets of cardboard. Dozens of women and young girls are lined head to toe, awake, staring at the ceiling.
There is a ladies waiting room to pass the time until the train arrives. Once aboard, the scene changes and all one requires will arrive in due time: Newspaper, chai, dosa, water. The key is in the observation and seizing the opportunity when it strikes. First and second-class cars are air-cooled with tiered benches to sleep on; fresh sheets, pillow and blanket are also provided. Families spreading out homemade travel feasts is regular occurrence.
I am seated in a first class car with three businessmen. After climbing onto the top platform, I remove the sheets from the brown wrapper, spread them onto the bench and close my eyes. Upon waking I swing my legs over the side and quietly lower my feet to the floor. Two men have left the car and so I take a seat to watch the country pass through the water stained window.
Country roads meandering with nothing in sight but farmland. A couple riding a motorbike. He’s straddling the machine and she, she is seated to the side riding English, bright orange and green pillows flap long willowy waves behind. Water buffalo, sturdy and massive, succumbing to the heat in deep baths of thick mud. Villages. Homes made of soil, palms, grass and bamboo. Towns. Wooden structures. Crossing barriers. People waiting. Everyone stops for the train.
The man across from me wakes up. He wants to know if I’m travelling on business.
Thus begins a discussion that passes the hours so quickly I wished to ride all the way to Delhi with him. We speak about business, economics, and politics, then move onto more intriguing topics; love, marriage, religion, faith, Spirituality and India.
He tells me of the men his father has met, living high in the Himalayas, more than two hundred years old, living off nothing but air. He shares his sad belief that his children’s generation is devoid of spiritual faith. He divulges the metaphysics of Indian heritage; faith and family, both planted by the seeds of God, infinitely intertwined. For in India, the path forward and the path behind, lead to one and the same destination.
~ by Christine Fowle