The Amritsar Mail from Kolkata to Varanasi

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I am full of anxiety given some of my past experiences with India Rail. Will we get past the touts? Will we get to the right platform? Will we board the right train even if we are on the right platform? Will we have to fight for our berth because of squatters arriving there first?

We arrive at the station around 4PM. A redshirted porter approaches us. He can pick out needy travelers from 100 feet. The conversation is quick and basic. He asks “Where to?” I respond “Varanasi on Amristar Mail.” He answers “Platform 8.” I bring up the key subject “How much?” He quickly says “200 rupees.” The price doesn’t sound exorbitant “Okay.” Off we go weaving our way between people and trying to keep up with him.

Within a few minutes we arrive at platform 8. I hand him the 200 rupees. With a quick “Thank you”, he is off. We look around. Dozens of young men, some middle-aged men, and a family are waiting. No single women. Dwight finds a place to sit and pulls out his 800 page book Illuminaries. Mary finds another place to sit. I watch the luggage.

A crowd gathers. It disappears into a train bound somewhere. Beginning around 5:30 PM, another crowd slowly begins to gather. Believe it or not, this crowd actually forms a line! There is very little pushing and shoving, which is remarkable for India.

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Even though we can’t distinguish the PA announcer’s words, we finally make out that “Amritsar Mail will be leaving from platform 8.” Not only did the porter get us to the right platform, but a small sign above us blinks A1. We are exactly where we should be for our particular coach. When in doubt, follow the experts. In this case, the expert is the porter! I’m thinking “This is easy!  Why was I anxious?”

We board. It is not difficult. There is a narrow aisle separating two seats facing each other on one side from four seats facing each other on the other side. We are the first on our side so we easily store our bags. Dwight dubiously looks at the ladder for his sleeping berth above the main seats. Since I’m not climbing the ladder, he has no choice.

It is dark as the train leaves Howrah Station. For some reason, the smell of kerosene is very strong. An attendant walks quickly through the coach spraying the Indian equivalent of Lysol. It doesn’t help. As the train leaves Kolkata, we see Kolkata’s underside.

I fall asleep. I wake around 9PM to make my bed. That rhythmic, hypnotic, and soothing rocking of the train is the same for any train around the world. After falling asleep for an hour or two, I wake up as we have stopped and there are people shouting only a few feet from my head. A young man has become our fourth compartment member. Across the aisle, two men, two women, and three children all under the age of three are stowing their suitcases and bags on and under the two seats on that side of the aisle.

In two minutes, one of the women pushes open our curtain. Even though the four of us are in our sleeping berths, she shouts: “We have too much luggage. Can we use your rack above the window?” Mary quickly says ‘no.” Being a softie, I say “You can use our floor.’ She proceeds to put a bag on the rack above the window. I have such authority! Of course, while she is putting the bag above the window, one of the men slides a suitcase beneath my seat where there is some room. Even in my sleepy state, I know that this is going to be a long night.

Other Indian coach passengers stare at the newcomers. Its clear that they are upset.  It appears that there are two families traveling together. However, when one of the men gives a little baby a kiss and says something like “bye-bye” I begin to hope that we are losing one of the men. I am right. We don’t see him again. For another hour, the two women, one man, and three children carry on loud conversations. I’ve noticed that talking quietly isn’t in the Indian rules of etiquette.

The aisle lights are turned off. One woman and a child are in the upper berth; another woman and two children are in the lower berth. The man has disappeared. Of course, what  we dread on long overseas flights, crying babies, is our fate for the long train ride. Sometime during the night, one of the babies begins to wail, and one of the other children has a deep cough that continues during the night.

The train constantly passes villages. We pass without stopping those haunting stations lit by a single neon light. We stop at a few other stations. Whether we stop or not, I can make out the silhouettes of cows, dogs, and people. Even at 2 or 3 AM, a few people board or disembark. As the train ride lengthens,  I watch the sun rise over the north Indian plain as it has for thousands of years. The rice and mustard seed fields are a rich green or yellow. A few scarecrows dressed with saris appear in those fields. Men face away from the tracks as they relieve themselves. Village minarets and mandirs slide past us. The early morning mist burns away.

We are to arrive at Varanasi at 9:10 AM. But I ask myself “How easy will it be to know that the station is Varanasi?” I hear the women and children across from us moving. I figure it is worth a try. I ask “We are wanting to get off at Varanasi. Do you know where we are?” She says: “No, but let me find out.” A minute later she says, “We are just before Kashi, Varanasi is the next stop.” Our conversation continues: “Where are all of you going?” ”We are going to Amritsar.” I am amazed because Amritsar is very close to the Pakistan border, all the way across the country.“Going to Amritsar, how far is that?” “We’ll be on the train for over 48 hours.” I think,  “God help them; God help all the others on this coach for those 48 hours!”

Our first train ride is almost over. We easily get our luggage to the door. I expect there to be a mad rush to disembark. There is none. Everybody disembarks in an orderly and respectful  manner.

We’ve arrived at Varanasi! No sweat! Why did I worry earlier? We move to the station’s exit. We look for the taxi  driver holding a sign with our name on it from the Rashmi Guesthouse. We look, and look, and look. I smile to myself and say: “Hey, what am I expecting? Of course the taxi won’t be here. This is India.” Ten men surround me extolling their taxis. I select one. Nothing to be anxious about now! Right!

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