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The art of evasion on an Indian train

Everyone had done a lot of listening, and I’d done a lot of talking. But was anyone any wiser about who I was at the end of it all? I wasn’t.

It was yet another long-haul train journey. I was heading south from Calcutta and can remember passing the time (and there was a lot of it) by talking to Ramesh. He was a neatly dressed, thirty-something government employee. Like a lot of private conversations, they tend to become public property as anyone and everyone gathers to listen-in. And it is guaranteed that on crowded Indian trains, a large audience will be listening-in. So I have become an expert in the art of saying a lot without really saying much.

Outside the station was business as usual. It was sheer madness. Throngs of people were milling about, and a million vehicles were snarled-up in a traffic jam of Indian proportions, waiting to get onto Howrah Bridge. After battling through the traffic in a yellow and black Ambassador taxi, I then battled through the crowds on blistered feet and arrived in coach S9 soaked in sweat and more than a little agitated. The length of Indian trains is phenomenal. It can be a mission in itself to find the right platform, but its an even bigger one having to walk half a kilometre along the platform with heavy baggage to get to your designated carriage, while cutting a path through a thousand people. As the train pulled out of the station, I gulped down half of my ten rupee bottle of “Bisleri” drinking water, secured my backpack to the metal hook under the bench, and settled down.

The usual flurry of activity then took place. Chai-sellers, fruit-sellers, toy-sellers, cold-drink sellers, and just about every type of seller imaginable passed through the carriage, shouting, wailing and bellowing. After the bedlam died down, Ramesh began to talk. The usual “Tell me, what is your good name, sir?” was asked and then things went into full flow. He then asked me what my job was – a simple everyday question, but not for me. In my time I’ve been many things including a researcher and social worker, have dabbled in selling jewellery, writing, and editing. After a degree of hesitation I selected a job from my ever-growing list.

Next, he enquired about my age and whether or not I was married. With typical Indian directness he said, “You are not yet married at your age?” Well I have had relationships, girlfriends, and anyway, marriage is not as important in the West as it is in India – all part of my well rehearsed stock in trade answers. Ramesh laughed and shook my hand. Being a man I can get away with having such seemingly lax morals.

By this stage about six or seven strangers had sat and were listening. I had to tread carefully. Things were getting intense. This guy was setting a minefield for me by bringing “God” into the conversation: “You are a Christian?”, he asked, followed by “Do you believe in God?” I waffled about being brought up as a Christian, and believing in “good” rather than God, while trying to side step the issue by saying that religion is not as important in Europe. The good rather than God reply is one of my “get out of jail” cards. It had worked before and it did again. It brought a beaming smile from Ramesh and everyone present nodded in agreement.

India is a highly structured society where family, gender, education and religion provide people with a strong sense of identity. Ramesh was trying to ascertain where I belonged in the scheme of things. But being from the less rigid West, my self-identity is more transient and by this stage was shifting by the minute according to the questions being fielded – or more precisely, to the “could-mean-anything” answers I was giving. If I didn’t have an identity crisis before, then I was in serious danger of developing one now.

It was getting hot – very hot. Someone switched on the overhead fans to blow some warm air around. Thirteen men were now packed into berths that were supposed to seat eight. The intensity stakes were cranked up a further notch as Ramesh asked, “Which country?” – I replied, “England” – “Very good country” he said and someone shouted, “What do you think of India?” I have learnt not to offer a personal opinion on anything in situations like this, but especially when faced with the “what do I think of India” thing. This issue can be hotter than a hot potato.

Indian newspapers were full of stories about Hindu/Muslim violence in Gujurat, Kashmir, religious fundamentalism, corruption, poverty, and globalisation. I knew that it was wise not to be drawn into debate over such things in public. So I dealt my second escape card by saying, “Some things are good, some things are bad”. It worked. Most people laughed – not because it was funny, but because they live with the “bad” things on a daily basis and appeared to take comfort from the fact that a foreigner is also subjected to them. They knew what I was talking about without me having to say – endless queuing, form filling, delays, bureaucracy, and all other types of man-made madness.

Ramesh wanted to know, “What do British people at home think of India”. This was successfully negotiated by pleading ignorance on behalf of the British public. I replied that people back home are largely unaware of what happens in India. I told everyone that the average Britisher knows little about the world beyond the confines of North America and Western Europe – and even then that’s stretching it. India rarely features in the news.

Back home, “What do you want to go there for?” is the usual response said in a tone denoting “shock-horror” if I tell someone that I am going to India. What they really mean is that I shouldn’t be going. Strange really, given their knowledge of India is ill-informed at worst and minimal at best. Unfortunately, people are less concerned with finding out about what is happening in the rest of the world and more concerned about world-shattering events surrounding what Victoria Beckham (a pop “singer”) had for breakfast, the latest tabloid sleazy sex scandal, or some other high class tit-bit from the all-important world of British celebrity-dom. It was half a world away from where I was but it might as well have been on a different planet.

The train pulled into a station, and as usual auto-rickshaws were out in force near the entrance. It must have been early morning as I recall the drivers being curled up in the back seats not yet having risen from their night-time slumber. A family was crouched on the platform eating rice-meals from banana leaves with their fingers. Next to them a vendor was yelling, “Omelette! Omelette! Omelette!”

A beautiful girl, no older than eighteen, wearing gold-coloured dangling earrings and a pink sari looked at me as the train moved-off. I thought about where she could be going and who she might have been. Maybe she was off to attend some kind of function, she looked so elegant. But she was going nowhere and to many she was just a no one. The only “get-together” she would be attending was the marriage of hard work and low pay. She wrapped her sari around and tucked it in, then someone handed her a rag, which she folded into a cushion on top of her head, upon which someone else placed a board full of bricks. She was part of the family of labourers that had been toiling away behind her. Her beauty was incongruous with the brutality of it all, and I wondered if she would look so young and beautiful after a few more years of hard labour. I was a long way from home.

Ramesh needed to know more. His questions were incessant. “What do most people in England do in their spare time?” I had thought about replying along the lines of – Friday night drinking binges, followed by Saturday morning shopping sprees, followed by arranging some credit loan from the nearest bank. People have to spend their money on something even if they don’t necessarily need or can afford the particular “something” that they spend it on.

I gazed out of the window and noticed a flamboyantly painted rural temple, almost identical to the previous flamboyantly painted temple that we had passed ten minutes ago. This one was dedicated to Shiva. I knew this because a black stone figure of Nandi the bull, his mount, was positioned in front of the shrine. Ramesh informed me, “That is a temple, sir”. Well I didn’t think it was a burger joint (surprisingly, you don’t tend to get them in the middle of a field in rural India), but I replied “Yes” trying to demonstrate grateful acknowledgement.

It made me think that debt has long since replaced religion in securing conformity in Britain – most people have too much to lose (or should that be too much to pay?) to rock the boat or to challenge things – even if they wanted to. But this aspect of the good old British way of life was best left unsaid. I didn’t have the heart to burden anyone with such an unhealthy dose of faultfinding gloom. After all Ramesh had told me that England is a “good” country and maybe it is. Anyhow, I didn’t wish to shatter any illusions – Britain is what many want India to be – “developed”.

I don’t suppose that I’m an expert on anything much, but if I am an expert on anything at all, it is in being able to regurgitate various viewpoints to prevent having to give an outright opinion of my own. I was asked about my views on development and India. So I mentioned J.K. Galbraith, the leading American economist, who is often quoted in the Indian press warning India not to dive headfirst into unfettered global capitalism. One of his classic quotes is something about the foolishness of feeding a horse strawberries, while expecting the masses to live on what comes out at the other end. Its not so much a case of the “trickle-down” effect, but the “trickle-out” effect, and the urban Indian elite seem hell-bent on devouring vast quantities of strawberries gulped down with a good old dollop of western values.

The train trundled along. Scores of women were working in the fields under the baking sun. The lower parts of their saris were pulled-up between their legs to aid mobility. I grew tired just watching them. I don’t think much had “trickled-down” to them. So much for strawberries! Everyone had laughed at the strawberry-eating horse story but were unsure whether or not Galbraith’s opinion was also mine. I couldn’t possibly say.

Finally, my saviour arrived in the form of the ticket inspector, and everyone dispersed to sit in their designated seats. I had got through the last hour with admirable skill. Everyone had done a lot of listening, and I’d done a lot of talking. But was anyone any wiser about who I was at the end of it all? I wasn’t. I then sat wondering whether I had turned into some slick and shady operator, deft in side-stepping issues – an opportunist, capable of ducking and diving with consummate ease. But then I came to the conclusion that I am really quite a decent and right-minded person – a typical product of Western culture. In other words, completely normal: unbalanced with multiple personalities, suffering from an identity crisis and unable to give a straight answer to a simple question.

Colin Todhunter

Colin Todhunter is an English travel writer whose book Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, was a bestseller in India. He followed up the book with a series of articles for the travel section of the New Sunday Express (the weekend edition of the New Indian Express). His travel articles have also been published in the US based socio-political magazine Newtopia, the Chennai based women’s magazine Eve’s Touch, Fitness First Magazine in the UK, and in the New Indian Express. Before branching into travel writing he wrote on a range of social issues, including disability rights, community development, healthcare and ageism. He has been published in the academic journals Disability and Society, Social Research Update, the Qualitative European Drug Research Journal, and in Clinical Medicine and Health Research. Colin is also a contributing author of the textbook The A to Z of Social Research.