Night Train to Pathankot
I could see him through my hat. It’s a battered black Acubra that I’ve had for about a year and it is maybe my coolest possession. It has two holes in the top rim which look like ghost eyes in a kids Halloween costume. It was through these two holes that I could see the policeman.
The train made a screeching noise and shuddered as it slowed down for another station.
“Chi! Chi! Chi! Coffee! Coffee! Mango Fruity! Fruity, Fruity, fruity! Chi!” came the Chi Wallah’s shouts in ascending high pitched jolts that carried over the rush of Indians getting on and off the train.
The crowd in the carriage cleared. There were now two policeman sitting on the adjacent lower bunk. The new comer had a moustache and a stripe on his lapel and looked senior. I broke out in a sweat. I had a vision of being lead away in handcuffs. Them laughing at me as I tried to offer the bribe recommended in Fieldings “The Worlds Most Dangerous Places.”
I was on my first overnight train ride during my first trip to India. Having traveled alone in some fairly remote parts of the Himalaya for the past two months, I was happy to find that on this train service, they put all the foreigners together. I was anxious to debrief the last months experiences with another waspy youth, or at least someone who wasn’t Indian.
The first lady I’d met was a Buddhist Monk who was a nice little English lady. Just like your mother – my mother – only Buddhist rather than Christian. She was relieved to see me.
“These men are not supposed to be in here!” She volunteered as a I squeezed past a crowd of soldiers, machine guns and luggage to find a seat. The second class seat carriages, the class lower than our second class sleepers, were incredibly crowded with soldiers on the way to the front in Kashmir. The spillage flowed naturally into our cabin.
I chatted briefly to a soldier who asked the universal questions, “What is your country? How long in India? How long you staying? What is your profession?”
“Do you speak Hindi?” I asked the monk.
“I never learnt.” She replied serenely. “If I learnt Hindi then I would have to listen to them.” Her gaze slowly moving across the soldiers and their weaponry. It was as if she regretted that the Delai Lama had not chosen somewhere more civil, like maybe Oxford shire, for his government in exile.
The final berths were taken up by an English girl and her traveling companion who turned out to be from New York. The guy was about thirty something and had a rough stubble that started somewhere below his shirt collar and continued right over his head. The only area not covered in stubble, the middle of his face, was shielded by a hand containing a constant chain of Bedi cigarettes.
“What are these damn Indians doing in here?! Damn conductors should do something! It’s always the same on these trains!” These ejaculations finding space to escape with the smoke from his mouth to mix and swirl in the cabins rich atmosphere.
I felt embarrassed. English is the official language of India and while they mostly speak Hindi, Urdu or Tamil, only a fool would assume an Indian could not understand English. I didn’t think this guy was a fool. I just thought he was a prick.
And then there was Jesse the English girl.
Traveling is a romantic activity. It opens your mind to the possible, to the new, the amazing, the bizarre, the smelly and the beautiful. As a young male abroad, foremost amongst these possibilities was the cool foreign chick. Jesse was pretty, well traveled, generous and best of all, friendly.
We chatted for a while. Usual stuff. “Where are you from? How long in India? How are your bowels working?”
“Want to go for a joint” Jesse asked.
“Sure” I heard myself replying. Totally contradicting my personal vow that I would only smoke hash up in the mountains. I have an overactive imagination and I had read extensively on India’s inconsistent and excessive drug laws.
We walked out towards the toilets and stood in the hallway near the window. I had some hash left from my last trek but Jesse had a joint already rolled so we smoked hers. I thought it was an exposed spot but hey, she was a cool foreign chick. You have to put these things into perspective.
Jesse lit the joint and the distinct smell of good Indian hash immediately filled the passageway and blew back towards the cabin. Be cool. It’s cool. She’s cool. After a few good tokes she passed me the joint and I pulled back heavily. Once, twice – it was good hash. Three times – I blew out and that’s when the policeman stepped into the passage. He walked in. He stopped. He looked at me. He looked at the joint. He looked back at me. Then without a word he went into the toilet.
I was quietly freaking. Jesse mumbled something I didn’t catch, something like “Oh shit!” But might not have been. She might not have even been worried. I handed her the joint and, like a completely freaked out wuss, I quickly walked back to the cabin.
I took sanctuary next to the New Yorker.
“Can I bum a Bedi?”
“No” He grunted.
Jesse came back a cool few minutes later. Probably having finished the joint in complete leisure. She sat away from me and started a conversation with the monk. The policeman walked past and looked at us as he went. My brain was ticking over fast with what if scenarios and I could feel the blood pumping in my head. Luckily my bead was on top where no one was sitting, so I crawled up there, put my hat over my face and contemplated a future in an Indian jail.
I awoke to voices below me and could see through my hat that it was morning. Half an hour later we pulled into Pathankot station. Things seem much different in daylight, less threatening I guess and I was kicking myself for how I’d felt and acted during the night. I was just slinging on my backpack when the policeman rounded the corner. The paranoia came back like a shark attack.
“Hello sir.” He said.
“Hello.” I stammered.
“Which country from?”
“How long in India?”
“How long you stay?”
“One more month.”
“You like cricket?
“Australia is a very good team!”