Excerpt | Around India in 80 Trains
‘One hundred and PIPTY!’
Our stationary auto shuddered in the middle of an angry traffic jam leading to the Paharganj side of New Delhi station and the driver signalled for us to get out. He refused to navigate his vehicle through the mash of metal and bodies thronging at the entrance. Plucking an extra Rs.50 from my hand, he swung round and wove off, leaving us standing in the middle of the road to die. A Maruti 800 was approaching from the right, an auto from the left and a cycle rickshaw pedalled in diagonally. The rule was simple: attack, or be attacked. I marched forward and somehow, all three swerved to avoid me. Back in Wembley, Shankar had issued precise instructions on how to get to New Delhi station’s tourist bureau: don’t look left or right, ignore the touts and agents scouring Paharganj’s Backpacker Ghetto, and go straight to the IndRail desk. On cue, a skinny man, like a stick insect in flares, appeared at my side.
‘Tickets ma’am? I can give confirmed tickets.’
He had the shifty body language of a sixth-former trying to flog poppers at a bus stop. I ignored him and contemplated the least fatal route across the road. Further along, Passepartout was shouting and trying to fend off a group of touts.
‘Ma’am, where are you going? … I can get you tickets … how many tickets? Official government tickets.’
This last claim confirmed that they were anything but legitimate tickets. Across the road, more touts had spotted us and were winding their way around autos and tripping over bike wheels. A beggar with a withered forearm wandered over and began to flick the useless limb back and forth with his good arm, tapping intermittently at my own healthy arm. To make it to the bureau unscathed, our field position was crucial. Passepartout went into a scrum, holding back the mob. Free to run, I broke out, dodging wheels, bonnets and elbows, and made it to the other side as the touts relented. They had spotted a trio of rucksacks bobbing by and moved on to new prey.
The high-ceilinged hall of New Delhi station was crammed with endless queues, meshed windows and neon signs, few of which made sense. A man wearing earmuffs gripped his nostrils between his thumb and forefinger and blew hard, throwing the contents on the floor, then pointed us towards a staircase. It led up to a landing that looked like the scene of a mass murder. Paan splashed the floors and mounted the walls, one well-aimed spurt obscuring the final ‘t’ on the Do Not Spit sign. Another sign pointed to Refreshment Room and a pair of blondes appeared from that direction and came down the staircase holding tickets. Both girls wore glittering bindis and Pushkar Passports—threads around their wrists. Touts and fake priests often pounce on tourists new to the holy town, offering flowers and blessings in exchange for a few thousand rupees. In return, a sacred thread is tied around the wrist, representing a vaccination against further hassle. Pious passport-wearers preserved the thread for months after they had arrived home to Fulham, and wore it until it smelt, rotted and fell off in the shower. This was definitely the right way to the tourist bureau.
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 The Matrix. 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.
Excerpted from Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh published in India by Roli Books.