“Madam! Tea? Tea? Breakfast?”
Still half asleep, I agreed to everything the young man in uniform was offering. With speed and agility, a steaming cup of tea was poured and placed beside me on my bunk. I had no idea what the time was but I seemed to be the last one up.
“Breakfast coming, madam!” said the man, who disappeared as quickly as he came.
I took in my surroundings. For the rail enthusiasts out there, the train I was travelling on was the 12436 New Delhi – Dibrugrh Town Rajdhani Express, in a 2A carriage. Couples and families were sitting up in their bunks, laughing and chatting over the first cuppa of the day. A scrum of people jostled to brush their teeth at the communal sinks. Out of the window, rural communities were already hard at work in the fields. I looked for my watch. It was 6 o’clock in the morning – I’d slept for 3 hours.
The night had been fraught. Pacing up and down the platform at Varanasi Junction, refusing to sit down because of the sheer volume of rats, we finally boarded the Rajdhani Express at 22:35. The horror of the rats deserves a special mention here. I was surprised by the lack of rat sightings during my stay in Varanasi but it turns out they were all at the train station. It was the first thing I saw as I descended the steps onto the platform and practically all I could focus on for the hour we had to wait there. Rats playing in the drinking fountains; rats running in and out of tea shacks, offices and waiting rooms; rats racing along the edges of the platform; rats on the train tracks, darting in and out of their burrows; rats splashing in puddles and falling over each other. Some were as big as cats, black and sleek, others were smaller and long-bodied, twitchy, brown and greasy. The high-pitched sounds they made in their dirty play revelry, the way they bounced as though gravity didn’t apply to them . . .
Finally on the train, I laid down under the itchy complimentary blanket in my bunk. Rats of all shapes and sizes danced through my mind. I couldn’t count sheep to help me sleep because a tidal wave of rats had savaged all the bleaters. Could a rat get on the train? There were so many on the tracks, one could just hop on . . .
I wanted so desperately to sleep but my rat anxiety and the nocturnal activities of the other passengers were not helping. All that separated me from the rest of the aisle was a flimsy curtain that failed to fully conceal my bunk. Several people had already peered in. I was right by the door which clattered noisily every time someone got up to go to the toilet. The carriage was alive with the sound of snoring, farting, burping, and men talking ridiculously loudly on their mobile phones. I put my earphones in and selected the Best of Seal on the MP3 player, hoping that his smooth voice would relax me as it had done once before on an overnight bus journey from hell a few years back (Haridwar to Agra). It did the trick eventually. Rats floated away from my sub-conscious mind and sleep came . . .
. . . and then the tea-wallah woke me. I sat up in my bunk, bleary-eyed, with the mug of chai cradled firmly in my grip. In that moment of quiet contemplation, gazing out of the window, I was suddenly reminded of a certain aspect of Indian life; the daily trip to the edge of the village to carry out one’s toilet ritual. For mile upon mile, the fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers were punctuated with squatting gents. It was barely 7 am and I’d already seen well over a hundred arses. Some would call that a productive morning, but not I.
My appetite was, unsurprisingly, not particularly strong that morning but I accepted a vegetarian breakfast tray anyway and began to pick at the contents. It was actually very nice and consisted of potato, chilli and carrot filled croquettes which were bursting with flavour, and some bread, which I wrapped the croquettes in to make a tasty breakfast sandwich. It turned out to be the only decent meal served on the journey. Other dishes that came my way included a thin tomato broth, likely from a packet mix; cold and chewy rotis; a bland, rubbery paneer curry; and an insipid, watery dal that resembled something panned from the Ganges.
Despite the dodgy catering and night-time anxieties, it was a pleasant journey that afforded plenty of time to watch a couple of Bollywood films, read vast swathes of my book, and to watch the landscape change from the farmlands and flat plains of Bihar to the leafy hills and valleys of verdant Assam. The next stop was Guwahati . . .