On a moonless midnight, I boarded a train in Khajuraho going towards Alliabad, which was originated from Agra. It was already full, what I mean full is two butts sharing a single seat, there were shelters of crisscrossed legs from passengers seating on the luggage racks, sleepy eyes were trying hard to get a sleep on packed right angled hard seats. The only who was sleeping tight was the one underneath his mother’s seat, while she kept half-awake to make sure people passing by won’t step on his arm.
Luckily I found a floor space in the corridor big enough for me to lie down and extend my legs. I laid a sarong on the floor, removed my shoes, my day pack as a pillow, corner of the sarong as an eye mask, I tried to get some sleep too.
Felt like I’m a piece of one finished jigsaw puzzle, cant’ move, can’t turn, cause I was sandwiched by other’s legs, though not moving but I kept sweating. And it’s quite restless while people commuting between their seats and toilets, dragged along toilet smell with their wet shoes.
I got legs full of heat rash after this exhausting train ride as if I was going to a labor camp, but guess what? it was voluntary.
India train ticket is thrillingly cheap, 1300km distance, about the distance between Hong Kong and Shanghai, cost less than 200hkd for a air-con sleeper, can you imagine how dirt cheap a second class ticket would cost? So stepping into a second class carriage is not an option for most foreigners, as well as for a lot of Indians I met.
First time I went to India, I was planning on a sleeper from Mumbai to Jaisalmer, but I didn’t know one need to purchase a ticket weeks in advance in order to secure a seat. Eventually I was still on the waiting list on the day of travel, but I can’t afford to postpone cause I can’t afford to miss the Jaisalmer Desert Festival either, so I bet on the unreserved second class, after 24 hours of uncomfort, I arrived.
Not difficult to see why educated Indians think second class carriage belongs to a different world, for India is a country of social classes, no matter it’s marriage, career or social activity, different classes lives in a different world, I didn’t even see the lower class has ambition to challenge the upper classes.
However I think second class carriage is a miniature of Indian society, and essence of un-civilized in this ancient civilization. Every time getting on or off a train is like a war, people chase after the carriage door before the train has stopped, then pushing through it, likewise for those needed to get off, necessary to get ready by the door before it’s stopped, try to get off as fast as you can, otherwise once the tsunami of on-board passengers rushes in, you’ll be pushed backward and stuck inside. This happens no matter how empty or occupied the train is.
To see authentic real Indian’s living, you don’t have to roam around ghettos, here you’ll see poor students in sweaty shirts, elders in worn out traditional clothing, a family with 5 young shoeless kids, sharing a small plate of home brought veggie curry and chapatis wrapped in newspaper. A beggar with deformed legs crawling on the floor, dragging along peanut shells, hawkers who sell snacks cut up onions and tomatoes with the same hand they handle cash, then same fingers give your food a toss, wrap it up in a fabric-coming-off-old newspaper into a cone as a container.
Occasionally something wicked would make a brief visit to the car, they’re neither he nor she, they dresses in women clothing, heavy makeup, and a handbag, make their fierce entrance, snap their fingers, open their palm and then ask you for money, even food or the bottle of water you’re having. People seem to be fear of them, and half willingly hand out their notes.
In western world these people can be addressed as transvestite, transsexual, or inter-sexual, but in India they’re called Hijras. In Hinduism, they’re considered the third sex, a creature expelled by the society, but because they were believed to have power to curse or to bless, so people rather give them small change for a blessing instead of pissing them off, results in Hijras showing their “candy”. Though seeing their “candy” may not turn you into stone, but local Indians are not eager to find out the consequence.
On the other hand, passengers in the second class carriage are relatively more humble and friendly, especially to a foreigner like me. Some would share a seat with me, or share their food with me, university students didn’t give up this opportunity to practice their English, and I received many invitations to people’s home.
For me travel is about savoring the original local flavors, but many of these flavors have been washed out by globalization, they lost their originality and became bland. I know, the flavor in Indian second class carriages maybe too strong to majority’s taste, but it’s original, and concentrated. And you know what misconception I found out from within? Indians aren’t smell.