Subcontinental Drift: Chapter Four - Agra to Jodhpur...Pity on the Unprepared

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Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Agra
July 5th 2008
Published: July 8th 2008
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Whole families had already jumped to the platform before the train came to a complete stop. Long gone was the thoughtful man with whom I shared my open compartment. The overnight train from Calcutta to Jodhpur arrived to collect the masses in Agra two hours late, at ten o’clock in the evening. In a lapse of judgment, I expected ushers to bring meals or snacks. All in the couchettes had spread out their sheets and drawn the drapes across their compartments. Services had ended and it was time to go to sleep. For me that meant it would be until morning until the servers would come by again.
Initially it didn’t matter. The breeze from the energetic but experienced air conditioning ducts chilled my drenched shirt. I knew I would have to change it soon, but relished the sharp drop in temperature. My upper bunk was spacious enough and my pack fit underneath the lower berth. I pulled out my windbreaker and found the woolen cap I had stuffed in an auxiliary pocket. I’d need it to keep my head warm and stay asleep. The stains on my blanket were few. My three bunkmates welcomed me. The only twinge of disappointment is the view out the window was cloudy. Anyway, it would be of no use to me on the upper bunk. The top of the glass pain did not reach that high. Despite my hunger pangs, things were looking up. I’d grab the first tray of goodies that passed my way in the morning. Wait! By two o’clock, we will have reached Jaipur. No problem: I’ll jump off and grab whatever I can on the platform, but will there be any vendors out at that hour?
The young guy below me was from the southern tip of India, where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea. He was getting off at Jaipur, which meant little to me since I was calculating the distance he had been traveling while he spoke. A full day to Madras, a day-and-a-half more to Agra, then the overnight to Jaipur. All for a two-day work assignment that should be outsourced to someone locally. I asked him if he liked to travel. Yes, he said, but not this much. Our quick chat faltered and I handed him today’s newspaper.
“Thank you, but no.” he declined.
“You’ve already read it?” He couldn’t have. It was the Agra paper. We were in Agra station for perhaps nine minutes.
“No, it is in Hindi. I know Tamil and English only. I cannot read it. May I go to sleep?” I motioned to his bunk and he turned his back to me. It was the last time I saw his face.
Another pang. I was getting uncomfortable. It wasn’t even eleven o’clock. What to do to keep food off my mind?
I turned to the window to see faint lights and little else. I did not want to read. The remaining bunkmate still awake reached into his duffle bag and pulled out a container wrapped in aluminum foil. He spread out old newsprint on his vinyl bunk. He then unwrapped a stack of rotis, round tortilla-like patties of flat bread. His stack could easily feed two, it was that high. He dunked the roti into a tin of hot, oily chickpeas and goat meat.
I looked away in aguish, but he caught my expression before I could hide it. “Hey, mister. You come eat with me.”
I bypassed the usual steps of politely refusing and then giving in with an “aw-shucks, OK” attitude. I hopped right on his bunk. We ate feverishly. The rotis were our utensils and he was far more adept at capturing the marinated meat and garbanzos than I was. I didn’t care. I could only offer him water. He had some stored away, but I made him take mine to make me feel as I were contributing something. I needed to feel better about myself, but he didn’t care.
Of course, his collar was adorned with a lapel pin, and we spoke of his job and the little he knew of the United States. As with many Indians, he was highly interested in our upcoming November elections.
I jumped up to my bunk feeling very grateful for dinner and the accompanying kindness. He was the last to turn in because he had not finished the tin of beans and meat. With his fingers, he dipped, prodded, and swirled around its slimy interior until every last morsel was gone. He wiped his pungent digits in the newsprint and went to sleep.
In the morning, he served me a berry cake his wife made for him and ordered me to down two bananas.
Of limited means, I never caught his name; I had not given him mine. He had a thick bandage on his chin from something far more severe than a shaving cut. Like Pasar, he wanted and expected nothing in return. The meals we shared were without any doubt the best and most satisfying I have had in India.


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