Authors: Monisha Rajesh
Metal chairs locked into two squares were already filled with travellers clutching white forms, waiting to be seen, while a dispute had erupted at the foreign tourist desk. A Chinese girl, brandishing her passport, was shouting at an unblinking Indian man whose sense of urgency was funereal. A dreadlocked brunette was fiddling with a knitted shoulder bag in her lap and had established an affinity for eye-rolling with a hungry-looking teenager whose toenails needed trimming. Two Americans were discussing the Burning Man festival and an Indian man wearing jeans, loafers and a Tag Heuer, was watching the scene with amusement. The neon lights and inattention made the bureau feel like the emergency room of a hippy hospital.
Once the Chinese girl had flounced off, with a parting gesture similar to the hijra’s curse, we approached the foreign tourist desk and sat down, laying out our passes for the clerk. He glanced at the passes and looked back at his computer screen.
‘Go to the IndRail desk.’
‘Which one is the IndRail desk?’ I asked.
The clerk stared at a nail. ‘The one saying “IndRail desk”.’
I glanced around and he tutted, pointing across the room. Scraping back chairs, we moved to the unattended IndRail desk. After 15 minutes a clerk sat down, wrote in her logbook, leant back in her chair to share a joke with a colleague, changed her glasses, and then held out a hand. I handed over the two rail passes.
‘We wondered if we could …’
‘Go to the IndRail UK desk.’
Passepartout flinched. ‘Where is the IndRail UK desk?’
She pointed to a desk where a head with a smudge in the parting was bent over a book of train timings, and refused to look up when we sat down. According to the placard, the head belonged to Anusha Thawani, Chief Reservation Supervisor. The book fell shut with a thud and Anusha stared at her computer screen. It was about as technologically advanced as a typewriter. She watched the green numbers on its black screen, as though observing a scene from
. She was in the mood neither to reserve nor to supervise. Not taking her eyes off the screen, she scowled.
So far, we had booked the Kerala Express, a 48-hour journey from Delhi to Kottayam, leaving in two days’ time, but the remaining 72 trains were negotiable. Handing over our passes, I scribbled down four sets of train numbers and Anusha screwed up her face.
‘Oh God, why have you come so late? I go at 5:30pm.’
Above her head, the long hand of an Ajanta clock had just pushed past the hour.
‘Then there’s still half an hour left, and anyway, the door says you’re open until 8pm.’
She ignored me and snatched the passes.
‘Fill in the forms and give me.’
She threw a sheaf of white reservation forms across the table, and, as an afterthought, a broken Biro.
I took the lid off the pen and she slapped the table.
I filled in our names and she slapped it again.
‘I’m hurrying! For God’s sake, let me at least write down the numbers.’
She heaved out her logbook and began tapping train numbers into her computer, muttering half at us, half to herself. Passepartout sank into his chair, pretending to clean his camera lens, shaking with laughter. Since the Indian Maharaja had departed, he had wolfed down plates of papaya, been generous with hugs and embraced Delhi with the energy of a dog in an open field, so I put his curious spell down to residual effects of the rogue coffee in Goa.
Anusha shook her head.
‘Nothing is available, you need to change the dates.’
She pushed back the forms. Crumbling under duress, I decided it was safer to take away the forms, choose new routes and come back in the morning. Relieved that she could now run off, Anusha pushed back her chair and pulled off her white coat, disappearing into the back as we made our way out.
It was the young Indian man.
‘How come you guys are taking so many trains? You on some charity run or something?’
On the way down the stairs we chatted with Adil, a New Yorker who was spending a few days in Delhi before heading to Mumbai for a wedding. At the exit Adil invited us to his friend’s party in Vasant Vihar and promised to pick us up before dinner.
Adil’s friend Vik was driving in the middle of the road, touching the steering wheel with two fingers: the rest curled around a glass of Johnnie Walker. His other hand was sending a text. I yanked the seatbelt across my front, only to realise that, like every other Indian car, the clip was wedged deep into the seats. The belt slithered back into place with a clunk. The Mercedes S600 paused at the traffic lights and a child’s hand appeared at the window. It was splayed out, revealing missing tips from the third and index fingers. A small boy blew his lips against the glass, puffed out his cheeks and cupped his hands around his eyes. A sliver of dried saliva ran from the corner of his mouth and his lip was split and crusted over. No matter how much time you spend in India or your immunity builds against the dirt, poverty and squalor, some things will always catch you off guard. I reached for my handbag and eased down the window. It hummed, but halfway through the descent, jerked and crawled back up again.
Vik shook his head at me in the rear-view mirror.
‘Dude, that fucker’s probably had his finger up his nose all day.’
‘I wasn’t trying to hold his hand, just give him some cash.’
‘Don’t, they’ll just give it to the police or some other bastards waiting to thrash them at the end of the day.’
‘But isn’t he less likely to be thrashed, or have his eye scooped out with a teaspoon if he’s actually got cash to hand over?’
‘Slumdog gim-dog, you people are so soft’, Vik laughed, ‘it’s no different from London. You give your money to some fellow in a cardboard box by the Tube and he’ll buy himself some dope.’
I had no charity-giving rulebook, but if someone was forced to sleep under boxes pilfered from Sainsbury’s, then they were badly off. Forking out the price of
and a Twix hardly put a hole in my pocket.
A BMW had pulled up alongside us and was inching its nose forward, putting beads of sweat on Vik’s temples. He slammed his foot down as the light turned green, causing a tidal surge of people and traffic in every direction. A few minutes later, we drew up at a four-storey building with a garden on the second floor and a line of cars spilling out of the driveway.
Adil led us through the garden, ducking under trees strung with fairy lights, breathing in the smell of cloves lifting off clusters of sweet william. Mock Victorian lanterns lined the path and a ring of red dots hovered in a corner—smokers, vigilant to stray aunties who might spot them and tell their parents. He made a beeline for the bar, which was propped up by a trio in tight T-shirts, working their way through a stock of Blue Label. The host, a hazel-eyed Hrithik Roshan lookalike, stood behind the bar, his pelvis jutting out in the direction of a light-haired girl wearing turquoise contact lenses. His shirt was undone one button too far, revealing a surplus of chest hair. He looked like a bad Thums Up advert.
Hrithik threw a peanut into his mouth and arched what looked like a threaded eyebrow.
‘So you’re the train geeks, huh? How many have you done?’
Less than thrilled that the ‘Train Geek’ badge was already pinned in place, I changed the subject.
‘So, how do you and Adil know each other?’
He poked one of the tight T-shirts in the chest.
‘Hey man, these two are travelling all over India … in 80 trains!’
His friend, who was already breaking out into whisky sweats, wiped his mouth and widened his reddening eyes.
‘Eigh-dee trains? Fuck … Why don’t you fly?’
‘Because I don’t like airports or peanuts.’
‘Those trains are disgusting. I normally wear gloves if I have to take a piss.’
‘I clean my teeth with the tap water.’
‘You eat the food on the train?’
‘You’ll get a tapeworm or something.’
‘You know there’s a tapeworm diet?’ the light-haired girl piped up. ‘I saw it on
The Tyra Banks Show
. You swallow one tapeworm and then you can eat anything at all and you don’t put on any weight.’
A blitzkrieg of questions about our train fetish descended and we took cover behind large drinks. Soon enough, Passepartout’s veins were plump with vodka, so I went in search of food. Across the hallway, a chandeliered dining room was lined with waiters lifting lids off steaming trays. A quick scan revealed a carved ham, chicken and mushroom risotto, cheese and cauliflower bake, and sautéed potatoes. It was a far cry from English party food, which normally included Marks and Spencer onion bhajis, chicken tikka and vegetable samosas.
A busty aunty with a gold necklace lodged in her cleavage appeared wearing leggings, Louboutins and pink lipstick on her two front teeth.
‘I hear you’re from Hampstead!’ she clapped, spooning cheese sauce all over my plate. ‘I used to live in West Hampstead in the 1970s when I was an air hostess.’ She paused. ‘What do your parents do?’
‘Oh how lovely, in Hampstead?’
‘No, they live in Birmingham.’
‘You don’t live with them?’
‘No, I live by myself.’
‘My son is actually a banker in London.’ She licked a nail, beckoning over a man in a Jean Paul Gaultier top. His nipples peered through the black netting that stopped a good two inches above his jeans. ‘He works for Citigroup and lives in Islington.’
‘Oh, that’s nice.’
‘Where is your family from?’
‘A fishing village near Pondicherry.’
Her face tried to collapse with disappointment but held firm with Botox as she led her son away by the elbow. Something told me I was not what she was looking for, or for that matter, the gender that he was looking for. Adil’s train was leaving early the next morning and we were due another audience with Anusha, so we licked a few spoons of Häagen-Dazs and called it a night. Delhi’s elite would have to make do without us for entertainment.
A combination of traffic and a visit to the railway museum brought us to the tourist bureau, yet again, at 5pm. But after much debate, train number eight was now crossed off the list. The National Railway Museum in Chanakyapuri, spread over 11 acres, features a tiny visitors’ train. It carries passengers around a sandy rail yard, offering close inspection of vintage engines, coaches and saloons, and a complimentary bang on the head for anyone over 4 feet climbing into its child-sized compartments. Passepartout was unconvinced that the Joy Train qualified.
‘You can’t count it as a train. That’s cheating.’
‘Are we in India?’
‘Are we travelling on a train?’
‘Then we are, essentially, travelling around a bit of India on a train.’
10 at the turnstile and boarding took place next to a bright yellow station sign for ‘Museum Junction’, so he gave in and clambered aboard. Among the vintage collection stood The Fairy Queen, the world’s oldest running steam train, and also an original rake of the Palace on Wheels. Scrawling the Joy Train into the logbook was satisfying and it added variety.
Anusha would not care.