Train travel never really held a fascination for me. Not until I came to India that is. I have always thought it as a mean of transport, to get from one place to another. During my time in India I have learnt, experienced and felt so many things through train travel.
It is not only the travel in India that becomes the fascination. It is also the waiting time, the travelling to and from, the actual journey, the sellers of chai, coooffee and cold drinks, the terrible railway food. The getting off and continuing on. So many stories, so few words, but I will begin with one of the most memorable.
The year was 2006. I was excited as I had just started a new travel company and had my first group of women from Australia. We had had a good time visiting Dharamsala, Bir and around the surrounds, having some good experiences, attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings. Everything had gone to plan, the group had just finished taking in the sights of Amritsar and taking the train back to Delhi. I was flying high.
We boarded the train in Amritsar, settled in our seats and had about 30 minutes to spare. I spied an ice-cream seller outside the carriage. As it was late April and very hot, I thought it would have been great to have a taste of a cold ice cream . I asked everyone as they had settled in their comfy seats “who would like an ice cream’?. A couple said they would so another of the women and I were off in search of an ice cream. Instead of heading straight back down the platform to where we had came from and to where I had seen the ice-cream seller go, I took a detour and headed around some pillars as there wasn’t any passing traffic.
As we headed around the pillars there was the body of a man, laying down flat, covering in a beige cloth (only his lower part), the rest of his body covered in flies, and smelling as dead people do. We took a step back, looking in shock, disbelief and looked silently to each other. I looked to where we had come from, outside the Executive Class compartment. There was a man in an army uniform with an attendant. He was obviously important as his attendant was carrying a rifle and his bag. I went up to him and said ‘Excuse me Sir (as you do in India), there is a man dead behind that pillar and pointed in the right direction. Can you do something. He said ‘Madam, I am about to get on this train’, find an Inspector (Railway). Thank you Sir, I muttered and off we went down the platform where we were supposed to go to find our ice creams.
I headed to the left of the platform . Indian train stations have buildings on one side, a mixture of official offices and shops selling everything from cold drinks, crisps, biscuits to locks for bags with the trains on the other side, the platform supporting the to-ing and fro-ing of a large Railway Station. I found an official looking office and poked my head into it. Excuse Sir, I wanted to tell you there is a dead body of a man behind a pillar near the Executive Class compartment of the train. The official, looking smart in his black trousers, shiny, black shoes and crisp, white shirt and dyed black hair, said Madam go to the Inspectors Office and tell them. We hastily retreated to find the Inspectors Office. Down the platform I went to find the Inspectors Office. Again poking my head inside, I asked, Is this the Inspectors Office, no, 2 doors down. Finally, we found the Inspectors Office. There were many people in there. I asked – Is the Inspector here. Yes, one of the men said, I am, again dressed in tidy black trousers, shiny black shoes , crisp white shirt and the obligatory dyed black hair and to add to this, a long dyed black moustache. I stumbled through my speech about a dead man behind the pillar near the Executive Class compartment. I waited for his reply. He looked at me without expression or empathy. I said do you understand Sir, there is a dead man who has been there for some time, behind the pillar. He said Yes, I understand. Then nothing, I waited, he stared me down. I felt like a naughty school girl who was telling tales on her class mate. I stammered, Sir I just wanted to tell you that…and I beat a hastily retreat.
The other person with me, said what did they say…I said nothing, let’s get out of here. Then that moment I thought about the ice-cream. ‘Do you still want an ice-cream I said, no thanks she said and I had certainly lost my appetite for it even in 40 degree plus heat. I did say to her however, remembering this was my inaugural trip. Please don’t tell the others, let’s keep it to ourselves, we might worry them unnecessarily.
But I did worry about it. As I closed my eyes during the train trip, in our comfy seats in Executive Class, I did think about the man who had died, and wondered what had become or would become of him. To die on a railway station, no care to care for you in life or death. It was a telling moment which still lives on some 11 years later.
It is a world which the haves and have-nots all end up with the same fate, it is a set of circumstances or life choices which determine how the dice rolls. To end up having the luxury of being surrounded by loved ones in an nice clinical burial home, or a fine Church service, or having one of your son’s light your funeral pyre surround by the all important male members of your family (while the women cry at home) , or to simply die on a train station, people walking past, no one caring and the train officials not knowing what to do with the body, to have a cheap cremation where no one attends. These are big issues which I still have no answer for. What I do have is acceptance of certain things, not injustice but am thankful for my life. What is my fate when it is my turn to die, I’m not sure. To die in a clinical nursing home where you are treated less than human, forced feed to keep you alive, to be shouted to be staff as they can’t think you can hear, to be fleeced of your hard earned money. Maybe that man on the platform did what he knew. Lived and died on the street which had everything to do with his life choices and karma, which is exactly what will happen to me.