As a Senior English Language Fellow, as great a teacher-trainer gig as I have ever had, Georgetown University and the State Department sent me and two huge suitcases for a seven month stay in Lucknow, India. Lucknow is a small town by Indian standards, with a mere 2 million souls crowding its walkways, streets, schools, shops, and malls. Though I was kept very busy providing workshops, seminars, and creative writing classes, a few
weeks before my contract was up, I traveled with a friend to Agra, city of the fabled Taj Mahal. No one can look at the beauty, symmetry, and exquisite detail of this architectural treasure without pondering how it came to be built at all.
Mosaics of infinite variety and precise etchings cover so many surfaces that an army of artisans was necessary to complete its every detail. It was, indeed, extraordinary, even in 109 degree heat. Hydration is key!
Still, you will forgive me if I assert that the train ride back to Lucknow was almost as interesting.We caught a train at the Agra Cant station. There are no daytime hour connections between these two cities and so the late night trains draw crowds of people. Anima had arranged for us to have 2nd Class A/C sleeper berths on the trip down to Agra but could only wangle 3rd Class A/C sleepers for the return. I will admit to some trepidation. All of this togetherness is not my cup of tea. I’m American after all and we generally don’t know or talk to even our neighbors. So the notion of sleeping almost cheek to cheek (take your pick) was uncomfortable. My only experiences with Indian trains previous to this past weekend were two trips in the Executive Class car of the Shtabdi Express from Lucknow to Aligarh. Shtabdi EC is like first class on a plane, two amply upholstered seats abreast, an aisle, and then two more. They recline, come with foot rests, big picture windows, and attendants who bring fresh bottled water, meals, juice, and the latest newspapers. I’d been perfectly cozy on both legs of those trips to Aligarh, with nary a complaint except for the time a man usurped my window seat before I got on and insisted he needed to keep it so he could use his computer en route.
Going down one class and then two sounded awfully risky, particularly in terms of
bathrooms. Not that I’ve ever used a bathroom on the train, regardless of the distance traveled. My occasionally cooperative gastro-intestinal tract has to-date held off any sense of urgency until after I have checked into a room of my own or reached my own apartment. Before getting on the train bound for Agra, I silently asked the same favor of my piping system and with the extraordinary soak-it-all-up heat acting as partner to my request, I made it through going and coming without having to use the somewhat dubious facilities.
A third class has a third berth on each side, so it is more crowded and has no reading lamp. I couldn’t sit up straight in my 3rd Class berth last night, but it was just as wide as the 2nd, which is about 24″ deep and 72″ long. The sheets provided were still warm from the iron and seemed clean if a little dingy. Bleach is not widely used here, though it is desperately needed. No doubt the bleached wash water of 1.4 billion souls would decimate the ground and river water. Even at our hotel, the once white towels wore the uniformly gray skin tone of a long-term chain smoker.
At 11:00pm Agra Cant station was packed with people. “Watch where you step,” cautioned Anima, “people are sleeping.” As indeed they were. Several men had doffed their kurtas (long tunics) and were ready to face the night with bare chests streaked with sweat. Women held babies to breasts shielded from eyes by a quick repositioning of sari yardage or their khameez’s chuni. Luggage for families or groups was piled in the center of their chosen territory for safety and to provide back rests or arm rests for the duration of their wait.
We passed the Tourist Information office and noted the crowd of uniforms outside in huddled discussion and the generalized smell of smoke. No lights or personnel were visible within, but we remained unclear whether the smoke actually came from the office or was merely passing by. Like any Indian, we didn’t take time to investigate, but instead hurried on to double check the platform of our train back to Lucknow. It hadn’t arrived so no station employees were willing to hazard more than a guess as to which platform would receive it. So, we waited in the cafe, refusing drink or food for reasons already mentioned, and people watching until our necks got cricks. A Moroccan friend often commented that my people watching is a little obvious, so intently do I analyze, inspect, or take down notes on. He’s right. Normally I should follow the advice I used to give my daughter when she visited me in Morocco and wear mirrored sun-glass lenses so that my stares are less noticeable. In India, however, I have no compunctions about staring because I am, in turn, being stared at. It’s tit for tat, as my interest in them is at least as great as their interest in me.
Within 15 minutes or so, the ever-efficient Anima had learned our train would come in on platform 4, on the far side of the station, so we headed up the stairs, over the trestle where others, a non-traveling variety of station dweller were also sleeping, stretched out on the cement as though it were a Temper-Pedic mattress. No pillow or sheets, just a sandwich of concrete, ragged clothes, and skin.
Once the train pulled in, we had to hustle down the track in the opposite direction to find our car and thence our assigned berths. Anima, having done this whole thing on a regular basis when she had teaching workshops scheduled in distant and/or remote cities, was like a bloodhound in finding the correct car and our bunks. Then, without peeing in any corners to mark territory, she took over our two berths in such a way that those who were edging toward them covetously, pulled back into the aisle and turned their antennae elsewhere. One woman wanted to trade one of us for her upper berth, claiming pregnancy in addition to the child at her side. Uhhhh, no! Anima indicated through words and actions that that wasn’t going to happen and I didn’t argue. I can get territorial with the best of them.
Important valuables have to stay on the bunk with you, so my backpack took up a good chunk of my head room, but I wasn’t going to shove it underneath without chaining it to something. Chains are a standard night-train accessory and are used to anchor belongings so that those of light feet and fast fingers can’t make off with them in the night.
Lots of rustling, spreading of sheets, stowing of luggage, slipping off of slippers, and clambering to upper bunks later, we all settled down to wait for the train to start and the journey to begin. With ear plugs in place and two Tylenol PMs ingested, I slept, only waking to spread my blanket over me when the A/C kicked in full force. At 6:00am, I awoke to find Anima already awake and informative about our arrival times.
By 6:30 the train was disgorging its occupants and we climbed down into the flow that lead outside to dozens of auto and bicycle rickshaws. My ride home in a bicycle rickshaw cost 90 cents. Its three miles or so from the station to the hostel. That ride was so revealing about the city. I’d never seen it before in the first stretch of morning. Many people were already out, going through the rituals that precede the work day. I saw a man using a string to scrape his tongue free of any food residue. Saliva flowed freely from his mouth to the ground below as he performed this chore. Two young men, perhaps 17 or 20 years old, shared an outdoor faucet and bathed in its flow, squat on their haunches in faded cinnamon-colored loin cloths while working up a lather with soap and spreading it over their bodies. A grandfather sat on a box by the side of the narrow road, a lunghi tied around his waist and dropping down his legs nearly to the ground, and a thin undershirt dressing his upper body. In his arms was a baby, perhaps four to five months old, diaperless but also clothed in a thin top. The burnished skin of the infant so mirrored that of the grandfather that it was hard to see where one body began and the other ended. Still, I caught the sight of one huge, lined hand cupping the bare bottom of the child, and the baby’s smiles of delight as his grandpa nuzzled his neck and murmured loving words.
Further on I saw the overnight rickshaw parking lot, which wasn’t a lot at all but merely a long stretch of wall on one side of the street against which 100s of rickshaw wallahs had placed their vehicles alternately facing in and out so that no space was wasted.
As we moved through the city from the station, I realized that it had rained during the night, this natural act accounting for the much cooler temperatures, the hazy sky, and the puddles that hadn’t yet been returned to the atmosphere. It may be that many of the people out this morning were there simply to enjoy the rare coolness, to breathe freely of air lower in temperature than their own bodies. I drank in my fill certainly, noticing every bend in the temperate breezes blowing past as we drove on. Already there were children playing in the parks and people crowded into commuter cars, a larger version of the auto-rickshaws, with a starter crank on the side. Vendors were piling vegetables on wooden carts as their ponies snuffled up feed from bags hung ’round their muzzles. Within an hour, the city would go from calm to chaos, from cool to heading toward record highs, but for that ride, that morning, I saw Lucknow in a completely different light, one that I will remember for its charm and quiet.