A handful of Pakora

A handful of Pakora

The station in Jalgaon is small in comparison to the Victorian grandeur of Chattrapati Shivaji in Mumbai. Three sleepy platforms, attendants sprawled head to toe against the dusty outbuildings while the pakora vendors heat oil for the first batch of the day. Even the flies seem slow and disinterested.

The clipped voice of a woman, the same as can be heard in every station across the country, repeats departure announcements over and over, first in Hindi, then English, until they lose meaning and become tone poems celebrating destinations unknown.

2621 Chatabadi Express to Bhopal 8 hour fifteen minute departing.
8601 Darjeeling Mail to Varanasi 8 hour twenty minute departing.

I'm still teetering from my bout of food poisoning the day before, and I blink in the harsh glare of the morning sun. The temperature is pushing thirty and it’s barely gone eight. On the far side of the tracks, behind the hodgepodge of crumbling station buildings comes the scattered honking of the swarming rickshaws at the main entrance, mingled with the sounds of the market beyond.

With a rumble that drowns out the rickshaws, a train draws into view and, in a second, the vendors are up and moving with purpose. They sweep up baskets of snacks, piles of tiffins, pots and mugs and swing themselves aboard before it has pulled to a stop, to ply their wares of chips and chai, locks and trinkets as they yell their slogans at the top of their voices. “Chai-wallah chai, ah, garam chai, masala chai, chai, chai, ah, chai-wallah chai.”

Pakoras are dunked in sizzling oil and the smell of deep fried batter mingles with the stench of cow shit and human sweat. This train has the same number as the one I'm to catch, and what appears to be the same destination hand painted in light-blue letters on the side. It is on the opposite platform.

I stand, swing my backpack up, and ponder whether I need to hoof it across the footbridge. “You’re going to Chittaurgarh, sir? Not that train, sir. This platform. Two trains cross. The same number, but one goes up and the other down,” says a bespectacled man who has appeared at my elbow. After barely two weeks in the country, I have developed a healthy sense of scepticism in regard to any directions, instructions, guidance, help or support given to me by anyone.

Romans have elevated the robbery of tourists into an art form as revered as the works of Puccini or Rossini: a beautiful theatre of spilled drinks, swapped tables and waiters in collusion with the pickpockets. Even the most opportunistic of Southeast Asian scammer will attempt to fleece you with a grin, “the temple is closed today, mister.” It’s very different here, where there’s an edge, and a real sense of desperation that underlies these transactions. You harden too quickly. Shut off too soon.

“Thank you,” I say, and turn my back on him as I try and decipher the platform information on the crumpled scrap of paper that is my ticket. He is right. I sit back down. “What country you are from, sir?” asks the man, and this is always the second question. I tell him Australia, and he smiles broadly, “I have just been there, to Sydney.” I am surprised, and it must show on my face, because he rushes to explain, “my bank had a conference there. World-wide. They sent a few people from India. My bank was chosen.” I ask him how he found Sydney, “it is a beautiful city, but empty. I would walk at night and see empty streets, empty shops. I felt alone.”

We stand and watch the hive of activity across the platform. “In India, connectivity is no problem,” he says, and he’s right. There is usually a train running from whatever part of the country you are in to wherever you need to get to. It’s capacity that is the issue. For a country teeming with people, any infrastructure built around moving them from one point to another must have capacity and flexibility that would make most Western transport planners go weak at the knees. The trains are full, the buses are full, the share jeeps weave delicate patterns around the cows milling in the street, and those unlucky enough not to have a seat inside the car cling to the running boards, the doors, or anywhere a handhold can be found.

But connectivity is not a problem, and right on time the train to Chittaurgarh grinds to a halt. I bid the banker goodbye, and pull myself aboard. The cabin is full, the odd bunk here and there still folded, but most are occupied by families sitting cross-legged, children on their laps. The floor is covered with food scraps and rubbish, and a child with a tangle of stumps, rather than legs, pulls himself along the floor of the carriage, sweeping a filthy cleaning cloth ineffectually with one arm. The other is used to reach for handholds, and to pull himself forward. Passengers push him aside with their feet as they shove luggage onto racks, before bending down to continue their negotiation with drink vendors through the windows of the carriage. There is a shudder, the train lurches into motion, and the boy grabs at my ankle.

We clear the platform and, as the last of the vendors swing themselves back down off the train and begin the walk back to the shade of the station, I notice that the walls of huts facing the tracks have been covered in hand-painted advertising slogans. Sandwiched between a freshly painted Tata Indicom logo and a whitewashed advertisement for locally manufactured bicycles, is a faded blue and gold slogan for what appears to be an energy drink: 2Tough - Strength is life, weakness is death.

The boy is still holding my leg, and he cups a hand and places it on my knee. There are Taj shaped haystacks in the fields, and it is hot.