Overnight train from Varanasi to Agra. Going to sleep with the memory of the haunting ghats and waking to the anticipation of the Taj Mahal. Our little band of travelers quivers with excitement. We have been advised to bring our own food onto the train. The journey will be long. The food inconsistent and of dubious quality. We ask the hotel. They make us good food to go.
I cradle my carefully packed falafel and fruit salad during the tuk tuk ride to the station and guard it from harm as we push through the throngs on the platform. As we wait for our train I nurse a feeling of ‘I’m just so pleased with myself right now’. Having negotiated the physical and emotional territory of India during my journey I feel that really, I can rest smugly on my resilience and probably spend the long train journey writing a blog about how I have ‘found’ myself in India.
Our group is a source of curiosity. A little theatre within the larger drama of public transport. People watch us. We watch our bags. The gods watch the trains. And I watch my falafel. One of my travel companions has been valiantly attempting to get a mental foothold on the family tree of the Hindu gods. All 3 million. I wonder which one is present today.
We all turn towards each other, forming a loose boundary. Staking our little bit of personal space. Space that we have no claim to. In India. Space that we surrended when we chose. To travel. To ‘meet the local people’. ‘To see the real India’. Space that we each cling to. In our own way. Mine is in the shape of my falafel. Everything could go to hell in a handbag, but it’s OK. I have my supplies.
One brave soul makes a border crossing. Standing next to me in a green sari asking for something. Quietly and insistently. I feign indifference. And deafness. I avert my eyes. The epic horror of giving money to one needy person in India and being trampled to death on a train station flashes before me. She continues to ask. Only me. I continue to look away. And then she takes my hand. Gently. It’s the law of love. Compelling you to turn to those that touch you. She is beautiful. But her hands are a disaster. Burned and clawed. She isn’t asking for money. She needs food.
The falafel moves seamlessly from my hand to hers. She makes a small sound of pleasure. There is no stampede. One million starving kids don’t run me down looking for falafels. Life moves on.
Later we board the train. Indians are excellent travelers. They can make themselves into whatever shape is required. Compacting life into a cameo. And yet we struggle with our bags, ipads, travel blankets and sanitisers. We create impasses wherever we stand. Desperately seeking space and not finding it. Seizing it from others and not meaning too. Trying to share and not knowing how.
The night passes. Along with the many vendors. Bearing tray after tray of aromatic and exotic delights. Masala tea and enticing snacks. Offerings from the 3 million gods. Who are surprisingly alive and well. Riding the trains of India. And blessing the food. And the people. Even the silly ones. Who bring their own falafels.