Despite being a local, the small bald man sitting opposite us was mopping sweat from his head with a handkerchief. For us foreigners, the dripping humidity in our non-AC carriage was bordering on unbearable.
The salesman had politely entered our compartment offering apologies and blessings as we had become accustomed to. We chatted about his job constantly travelling on the reliable, though aging rail network. In turn he interviewed us with forensic curiosity — “Coming from?” was the standard opening gambit of any encounter in this vibrant, overwhelming country. We exchanged tales of our homeland for his extensive knowledge of the moving city we were sharing.
A long, steamy drag around the Indian subcontinent on clattering brim full trains had taken us, eventually, to Madras and we were now on the way back north to Delhi.
In six weeks on an Ind Rail Pass we had covered thousands of miles from Delhi to the western deserts of Jaipur, the Taj Mahal at Agra and on to Goa. A beach break had turned into a debilitating stomach bug adventure for me and I’d left a stone and a half behind when we departed in a state of ‘Imodium’ uncertainty. Never, ever, have the prawn curry.
From Goa we’d gone south to “clean and green” hill station Ooty, which was more dirty brown. From there to lovely Mysore, further south to Madurai and across Tamil Nadu to ancient, sculpted Mahabalipuram and heaving Madras. 1990 pre-name change, pre-internet, pre-call centre India was an eyeful alright.
Every stimulus is turned up to eleven in India, it’s like watching an oversaturated 1970s colour TV on full volume in a stink bomb factory while being forced to eat curry with your fingers.
We’d seen spectacular scenery, architecture, art and bursting cities but also beggars and heartbreaking, desperate children, a man who ran around barking like a dog, broken humanity on every corner, pain, poverty and hopelessness. We’d glimpsed blackened hell hole kitchens in subterranean restaurants, argued with rickshaw drivers over a ten pence overcharge and been “helped” to wrong destinations in every city we’d visited.
We’d been taken by bus from the airport to meet the driver’s family on the way to the city; walked through a riot in Old Delhi without noticing; been involved in a bus crash; signed autographs for school children; had our rucksacks knawed by rats at left luggage and narrowly avoided falling into a sewer on an ‘Indian Helicopter’ during a curfew blackout.
It had been a constant barrage of people trying to buy, sell, or find an angle to better their karma. We were exhausted and ready to escape, and the train from Madras was our last leg before flying on to Bangkok.
Our Ind Rail Pass had been planned and procured months before in a seedy specialist travel agent’s in Wembley. Although we’d been dubious of its purveyor it had turned out to be a good choice allowing us affordable access to “first class” travel on sleeper trains in relative comfort and the use of reserved waiting rooms in the huge, Victorian railway stations.
The journey had been shared with many fellow travellers with hardly any respite or space. Some came and went in a stop or two, others became fellow sleepers in the drop down bunks each compartment offered. All were polite and interested in us, generous with their knowledge and provisions. We met an army Captain in service on the border with Pakistan, a young couple on their honeymoon to Bombay and a family who’s children were friendly and inquisitive and had invited us to stay with them, to the surprise of their mother.
The on board catering was patchy at best, a breakfast choice of “jam toast” or “bread omelette”, both as dull as they sound, and lunch was whatever we could get on the platform we stopped at closest to midday, usually bananas. Dinner, however, was the always excellent Thali, a selection of curries, rice, sauces, pickles and chutney on a compartmentalised tin tray with nan or chapatis. We drank bottled water, “Limka” or “Thumbs Up” or the ubiquitous Chai - strong, sweet, milky tea served in little earthenware pots you threw out of the window when finished. It was all ludicrously cheap.
Our salesman joined us at Madras and settled in, his choreographed routine a muscle memory well practised over innumerable similar journeys. His English was good and we chatted for a while before dinner and bed, and all the next day discussing the passing verdant landscape, the seething political situation and the country’s past and future.
As we came within whistle range of the huge city of Hyderabad he became agitated. He stood up and forced the barred window open a millimetre more, he paced about, apologising each time he brushed a foot or a knee. He muttered to himself in his native language.
Are you OK? I asked.
Ah, forgive me, it is my son.
He wobbled his head. Yes, yes, he is a student in Hyderabad and I have not seen him for nearly a year. It is so far from home and he has little money.
Are you getting off in Hyderabad?
Oh no, no time. I am hoping we will meet.
Meet? I didn’t get the chance to have an explanation of the logistics as the train pulled in to it’s short stop at Hyderabad station and he threw himself at the window squeezing as much of his arm and shoulder out of the narrow space between the bars. Sanjay! Sanjay! he called desperately.
A handsome young man detached himself from a knot of others twenty metres up the packed platform and pushed his way to our window. With no time to step off the train they linked fingers through the space and talked delightedly together before father passed over a fistful of Rupees to his boy. He wasted precious time introducing us before the guard signalled time on their meeting and the train eased away.
He waved long after his son could have still seen him through the grimy twilight air. My son. My son. he whispered, tears wetting his beaming face.