It was my birthday. I woke up twenty years old and hungry. Everyone around me was still asleep, lulled and comforted by the gentle rhythm of the train to Delhi, and since we were in carriage number 26 the noise from the engine was distant enough not to disturb anyone. I tumbled and slid my way down from the wooden bunk I’d been confined to for most of the night, managing not to step on any of the passengers sleeping in tiers below me. The two bottom benches were occupied by Mr and Mrs Khan, the two above them by their four young children and the top two by me and Mrs Khan’s nephew, Kamal. Opinion among travellers is divided on whether the top berths are best or worst. Fixed above the barred carriage windows, they leave the insomniac traveller guessing the names of the stations the train passes through during the long hours of darkness. Moreover, lying belly-up as I prefer, and with very little room between your face and the curving roof, a claustrophobe like me finds it difficult to relax. The only advantage I can think of is the wonderful view it affords of everyone's bedtime routine; the business of rearranging luggage and children, hefty ladies changing into exquisitely embroidered night clothes behind tent-like affairs held by their daughters, the sounds and sights of night time ablutions..... no, perhaps there are no advantages to being perched on the top berth after all, except perhaps the half-whispered conversation I had with Kamal in the early hours across the narrow gulf that separated the two banks of beds.
The lower half of that murky space had soon filled with the sounds of sleeping when the lights were dimmed, and reassured that his family could not hear our conversation, Kamal spoke more freely than he had in their presence. He confided that he had recently graduated from University in Calcutta and his secret ambition was to find a job in Delhi, in the Civil Service or some such body that would provide good prospects for promotion. His family knew nothing of his plans.
“But why?” I asked. I was quite surprised at his choice of city and career. “Calcutta’s such a happening place, far more relaxed, more open and alive than stuffy old Delhi.”
I was remembering the month I had just spent feeding on the most remarkable jazz that I had never expected to find in Asia, so Calcutta had been intoxicating for me, and mellow. In reply he nodded his head down towards his sleeping family on the lower benches. “There’s only freedom in Calcutta if it’s not your home,” he snapped dryly, leaving me to speculate about whatever restrictions the Khan household imposed on him. The excitement in his voice when he had spoken about his prospects in the capital had gone now and he sounded deflated, resigned. Not only did Kamal sound resigned but he acted out the reality for me as he turned round to face the wall, pulled the blanket over his head and soon added his own night time rumblings to the dark soup of rifting and snoring that washed around the bodies on the wooden benches below.
I wandered in and out of light sleep for a few hours. That was when I clambered down from what might have been classified as the luggage rack on a train in Ireland, and I took up my usual position on Indian night trains. I swung open the heavy door at the end of the carriage and sat on the floor, my legs dangling down towards the slowly moving ground, a blanket pulled tightly round my shoulders. The night was cold and well into darkness. Shapes loomed at me from the cool, breezy silence and then receded as quickly as they had presented themselves, giving me only a few seconds to identify and remember them. One minute the ground would fall away sharply as the tracks headed over an embankment piled high across a dried-up river bed; the next minute the carriage was being dragged screaming into a narrow passage blasted through a small hill, and I’d be confronted by chiselled rock-face, close enough to touch. I had the sense of passing through a world of shadows and danger and uncertainty. I was uninvolved, a spectator as usual, the only living witness to all that slipped obscurely and unnoticed under the eternal turning of wheels and night. The only clarity and stability was above me in the sky. It was a more constant, dependable, all-seeing witness, the same unpolluted magnificence I had lived under in Africa as a child, as solid and mysterious as God. That sky was forbidding but gracious, to be contemplated but never challenged. It was the same sky under which Adela Quested could never bring herself to fall in love with Mrs Moore’s son Ronnie; Jean Giono’s night sky, terrible and cold, the same sky that saw Jourdan labouring with his horse and plough on his farm in Haut Provence, the sky out of which had walked his long expected saviour. It was the kind of night away from cities that Giono sums up in the simple opening words of “Que ma joie demeure”, the words that devastate me each time I lift that book: “C’était une nuit extraordinaire.” A man could lose his mind under such a sky. Or find it.
When the tracks took the train north for a while, around some hill the English hadn’t been able to blast out of their way, the commanding splendour of the extraordinary night was strangely but appropriately compromised by the first traces of light coming from the east we were trying to leave behind. A vague milkiness began to spread its influence quickly towards us, and the world, seen up till then only in negative, in shades of grey, was on its way to development into full colour and daytime textures. For that short moment I was lost between the nuit extraordinaire and the jour extraordinaire that was breaking on the world. There were no familiar points of reference, though I felt strangely contented and assured, luxuriating in a flood of mysterious grace.
I let as long a time as possible pass before returning to my wakening fellow-travellers, not wanting to get in the way of Mrs Khan doing whatever it was that she did under the imagined privacy of her changing tent and taking up rather a lot of space doing it. In the busyness of everyone else’s morning I sat on at the open door, warm in my blanket, hungry for food and whatever the coming day would bring. I watched as small groups of men came out of their villages to the banks of the river that the train had begun to follow. In no time and for miles of misty, grey morning they formed a broken chain of human islands along the riverbank, squatting in groups with their clothes hitched up around their waists and their little silver bowls of water at their feet. They chatted among themselves and watched the train rolling inland against the flow of the river. They even waved at us as they let go of yesterday’s rice and lentils. I tried imagining communal outdoor toileting in Ireland but the picture wouldn’t form, and not just because of the weather. The nearest I could get to it was the memory of a row of about 20 middle-aged men in black suits, bowler hats and orange sashes piddling in unison on the 12th of July against the wall of a church in Belfast before their long march to The Field at Edenderry, a curtain of white cigarette smoke rising to separate them from their church.
Back inside the carriage things were settling down after the morning’s first routine and a space had been cleared on the floor for a makeshift kitchen. It was easy to tell that Kamal disapproved, but he was nevertheless obliged by his aunt to pump up the primus stove while she rummaged around various bags for ingredients and utensils. Normally I prefer buying food at some of the stations along the way, passing rupees out between the bars on the windows and receiving some edible surprise in return..... or sometimes not. But on this trip I was travelling without cash because of a last minute change of plans, and although Mrs Khan didn’t know about my lack of funds, she insisted that I should eat with her family.
“We would be most honoured,” she declared emphatically leaving no room for refusal. “We are going to Delhi to pray at the Jama Masjid and we want to share food with you poor”.
Me..... poor? I suppose I was poor in that I had no ready cash on me, but I had a passport, traveller cheques, a plane ticket to Copenhagen, three pairs of jeans that I could sell.....
I was first to be fed being the guest, the recipient of alms, and victim of piety. Kamal left. Mrs Khan unwrapped a large wad of grey bread and split it. It looked grainy and dry, but she spread it thick with what looked like extremely greasy lard and laid it to one side while she warmed some oil on a pan on the primus stove and we continued to roll on towards Delhi. She cracked an egg and threw it into the pan, but the absence of the sound of sizzling told me that the oil had been all but barely warmed. The still-translucent egg was quickly scooped back out of the pan before it had the chance to congeal and it was laid on one half of the bread where it slithered around on the greasy lard before being sandwiched by the other bit of bread and presented to me: breakfast.
In most situations I can manage a fairly convincing “Yummy, my favourite” for a generous if untalented host, but not for semolina, porridge or rice pudding; nor, as I now know, for egg that has been vaguely approximated to a warmish pan; nor for grey, grainy bread spread thick with lard, but in and down it had to go. To have refused would have been rude. This was an act of religious duty for Mrs Khan, an act of sacrifice for both of us. Egg trickled down my chin and various contrived distractions allowed some bread to find its way into a trouser pocket. Delhi was still 20 hours away and the day had only begun.
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