By Kai Teo
Pictures: blogs.reuters.com, thehindu.com, darkroom.baltimoresun.com
Indian trains are pure hardcore. They’re slightly faster than your bicycle, smell like an overused public toilet, and rock harder than Mick Jagger.
Of course, as a tourist, you might never have to experience that. There’s a wide range of classes available for train travel. You have the air-conditioned first class, the comfortable sleeper class, the seating class, and tourists even have a special carriage allocated to them. It’s kinda like the caste system (shhh… they don’t like to talk about this).
And that is what India is about. Different classes, different experiences. To really experience the culture, you’d have to travel in all the classes at least once.
But there is one class that all my Indian friends, and tourist friends, and Facebook friends, advise against – The General Class.
Generally speaking, this ticket guarantees you a place on the train. And by place, it doesn’t mean that you get a seat. You merely get to be on the train, whichever position you adopt. So when I got to India, I did what my mother told me not to do and stood in line (there wasn’t a line, we had to push our way to the counter) to buy the general ticket for a 12-hour ride from Mumbai to Goa.
It costs 245 rupees (3.6 EUR) for 600 km of high-speed action along the West-Indian coastline. Yes. Every time you have a beer at the pub, someone can use that money to go to Goa.
I grabbed my chai, bought a book about the Vedas, and 2 super spicy samosas and sat down on the floor to wait for my train, the Konkankanya Express. And as a male traveller with long hair, weird tattoos and nail polish, I naturally attracted the stares of just about the entire train station. The stares weren’t threatening or hostile, they felt more like intense confusion and a sense of “what the fuck”. And when you flash a friendly smile back, all of them would smile back at you with an accompanying signature head jiggle, which I picked up almost instantly.
Everything you do becomes interesting. The book you’re reading, the way you drink your water, the colour of your socks (didn’t help that it was pink). It’s like National Geographic, except that you’re on the other side of the TV, and someone’s watching you with commentary in a thick Indian accent by David Attenbalakrishnan.
Right, time’s 22:00, time to get to my train. And of course, it was already packed when I got there. But like all things in India, nothing’s impossible, or saab kuch milega.
I took a deep breath and pushed my way into the open door of the metal can and plunged myself into the instant chaos of 200 men, 5 chickens, and 2 women jostling for space within a 20 square-metre area.
There was no space to breathe. There were people everywhere. Some had planted their asses firmly on the floor, some were clinging on to the ceiling fan, some were stacked onto some others. Wherever there was space, there was an Indian.
Women had their own ladies carriage. So that’s why there’s hardly any woman around. The 2-meter long luggage racks became a comfortable bench for 5 people. And flip flops were placed precariously on the ceiling fans to prevent them from getting lost in the abyss of human bodies.
It was pure survival of the fittest. Unless you’re very old. Then you start seeing the Indian beauty of respect for the elderly. Some guy would part the sea of meat like Indian Moses, and some other teenager would be shooed off his seat to make space for anyone above the age of 70. VIP treatment, masala style.
I wasn’t so lucky, nor that old. I was the zoo animal trapped in a cage with everyone staring at me. There was an elbow in my rib, a head under my armpit, someone’s shoulder behind my knees, and another person’s face in my ass. I couldn’t turn around, and I could hardly breathe. But since they saw that I was obviously a tourist, the locals gave advice on how to manoeuvre my limbs so that I could fit comfortably in the space. Someone helped me slip my backpack under his seat (2 other people helped), and someone offered me a sip of fresh Indian bottled water.
There’s always someone willing to help. I was sweating like a pig, partly from the sheer unbearable temperature in the carriage, and partly from the warmth of the Indian people. When the train started moving, a gentle breeze brushed across my face. It carried with it a signature smell of chai, curry, burning rubbish, and pee. But at least it wasn’t warm anymore.
I was standing in my little allocated space for about an hour before someone near me got off. And a gracious local tapped my arm, pointed at the floor, and did a head jiggle. I knew what that meant. And I jiggled back, and sat down in between his feet.
I took a sip from my water bottle, and offered the man beside me some. He took it and skilfully poured it into his throat without touching the bottle with his mouth, and without spilling a drop. Then he handed it back to me, with a jiggle.
As midnight passed, people started getting tired and adopted their sleeping positions – the exact same position they were in, but with eyes closed.
They helped one another adjust their arms, gave suggestions on where to place another person’s feet, and snored. I was caught in a mangle of sweaty limbs, stuck in the lotus position, and fell asleep with my head on the lap of some dude.
“Chai chai chai, coffee, chai!” A loud, assertive voice called out from outside the window as the train screeched to a halt, waking me up from my restless slumber. Money changed hands quickly, and chai was passed around with practised dexterity and grace. I too, passed someone 10 rupees, jiggled my head, pointed at the chai wala, and got what I needed.
The strong scent of masala shot up my nose as I sipped noisily at the sugar overloaded black tea. It didn’t taste like heaven, but it sure tasted like adventure. When I was done with enjoying my little cuppa, someone promptly took my paper cup from me and flung it out of the window into the darkness. There was no room for “Why did you litter?” here. The whole India does it. Flinging stuff everywhere. I could only be grateful that someone helped me get rid of my cup. If not I would’ve been holding on to it the whole evening, which would confuse the locals even more.
So here you go. General Class. Uncomfortable as fuck, cheap as fuck, but charming as fuck. And if you’re in India, and taking the train, make sure you go general at least for one of your journeys.