Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Another train to Delhi

I am sitting on a train to Delhi from Vellore in my 16th of 34 hours amidst a bunch of rowdy, vocal men speaking in loud tones about women, food and inevitably, cricket. Of course all this is taking place in an unknown Indian language, probably Hindi, because they are variously from Kerala (native language Malayalam), Tamil Nadu (Tamil), Jaipur, (Rajasthani) and noisest of the lot, three Sikhs from Chandrigar (Punjabi). The reason I know they are talking about women, food and cricket is partly because of the scattered, tell-tell english words, like girlfriend, fast bowling and roti, and the enormous amount of guffawing and thigh slapping which is going on, both of their own and each others, despite the fact that apart from the 3 Sikhs, none of them have ever met before. One of them even started howling like a wolf when another was on the phone to his "fiancee".

Occasionally they refer to me, the mysterious lone white woman, in their conversations (a give-away, with their sideways look and a "ma'am" thrust in the middle of their volubility). On one occasion when I looked up, after slight embarrassment that I had twigged they were talking about me, they said that if they ever travelled together again, I should fly over from England to join them. I'm sure that's not what they were talking about, but it was a valiant effort.

Of course I have had the whole, where are you from, what is your name, why aren��t you married conversation, in about hour 5 of the trip (the first four being taken up by sleeping, so hour 5 was the first legitimate opportunity.) It's so funny the response I get when I say I'm not married. The man sitting next to me who has a teak farm in Jaipur, was no exception, and so, as expected, said, "Why?"

How does one answer that? There isn't a why. I usually struggle with this question, but today, I found a whole new avenue to take it down. I told them, being a busy and dedicated doctor, I couldn't possibly forfeit my career for a house and family, so I was looking for a house husband. Brief, but tangible silence, before renewed and exaggerated thigh-slapping at the thought of a male housewife.
"They have them in England?"
"Mm-hmm."
"Really?"
"Definitely," I said, "but still they are quite hard to find."
"No problem," said the Rajastani, heartily, "I will find you a house-husband in India. How do you like them. Thin? Healthy? Tall? Someone from town, or, what about a strong villager? Someone, who will do all the cooking?"
"No, no," I protested, "I like cooking, I just want someone to do the washing up and the hoovering." More astonished, explosive guffaws, accompanied by painful sounding thigh-slapping.

Net result, the Rajastani has asked me along with Mum and Dad to dinner on the 20th February in Jaipur, in order to show them the selection of Good Indian Boys he has found who are prepared to be my house-husband. I'm thinking we should definitely go.
Obviously, I didn't tell the Rajastani that I already have a fiance in Vellore, I thought that might diminish his enthusiasm for finding me a selection of men to chose from, especially, as Pandian is my fiance only in his own eyes. As it is, the Pandian saga is turning into a drama of Bollywood-sized proportions.

Immediately I returned from Sri Lanka, he phoned sounding as eager as ever. Planning ahead and knowing I needed an auto to take me to the station at 2am, I didn't want to be too offish, also I was quite keen to have a ride on the back of his motorbike, so when he suggested a sunset cruise to the mountains I agreed. It was lovely to see a part of the countryside I would never have otherwise seen and, give or take a few of the more predictable conversations ("Do you love me?" "No" and "Will you marry me?" "No" etc etc), his company is fun and we have a laugh. Of course, it is highly inappropriate that I should be seen with him, but luckily I am not a young Indian girl, but a nearly middle-aged English Doctor, with no reputation to be sullied and no family honour to be upheld.

On the way up to the mountain, I noticed he had a nasty burn on his arm. I asked him how he got it. He told me that his aunt was trying to marry him off to her daughter, his cousin, but he doesn't like her, so when he said he wouldn't marry her, someone took a hot poker and put it on his arm. His aunt's family are rich, they want him to marry their daughter so he can contribute his hard-earned money to their coffers. He works very hard. He has a day job as an auto driver and a night job as a watchman at the hospital, managing to sleep between 6am and lunchtime. But, after marriage, they would stop him from seeing his brothers, who are the only people he cares about. His mother, who was blind, died when Pandian was about 4 or 5. He was then neglected by his father who was and remains a useless drunk. When he was at school he excelled at sports, winning prizes in athletics and team sports and as such was noticed by a better, private school offering a scholarship via one of the many charities whose members sponsored children's education. He was given a place and the remainder of his education took place at a catholic seminary run by a Father Joseph, of whom he speaks in loving tones. Somebody, probably in Reigate or Hampstead, in the nineties, regularly sent a cheque to a school in India, maybe receiving, once in a while, a photo of a toothy young boy in shorts and a hand-written thank-you letter, and now that boy is an adult with good English, earning a good wage, in turn sending money to help his brother who is at college. His brother is training to be a doctor. Ever since then, Pandian has felt that he could only marry a white woman, and now he thinks he has found that person. Nothing I say seems to diminish his hope, even the fact that I am practically old enough (if I had been incredibly precocious) to be his mother. I fear, however, that I am bringing him bad luck, just because I am selfishly enjoying spending time with someone, for whom I have no romantic inclinations, in a situation when I can hardly pick and chose my friends. Yesterday, on the train, my phone rings. It says Pandian mobile. I pick up and say hello. There is a woman on the other end.
"Is this Arabella?" she says.
"Yes, who is this?"
"I am Pandian wife. Please don't phone this number anymore."

Ah. Well, either he has been lying all along (not an entirely unreasonable idea) or this is his girl-cousin who wants to marry him, being possessive. Either way, I am not happy about the situation. My presence seems to be causing real problems. Jealousy, frustration and a lifetime of adversity and hardship can make human life seem less precious. We already know that the suicide rate in this area is 100 times that of the UK, mainly of young people, frustrated at the lack of power in their lives, their destiny dictated by religion, poverty and stricture. I fear that, even though I have done nothing except be friendly to a young boy, this is so beyond what is normal for his world that I may have inadvertently created an explosive situation. Perhaps I am overestimating my impact, but I am definitely twitchy about this whole scenario. Luckily, I am out of town for a few weeks so maybe things will calm down, but I feel a little sad that I can't just get to know someone without there being disastrous consequences within his culture.

Apart from the phone call from Pandian's "wife", the train trip was wonderful. A slice of Indian Millefeuille. Apart from the noisy bunch of men, there was a single Tamil man, who spent the whole trip until Bopal, where he disembarked, looking utterly traumatised by the noise made by his fellow passengers. He sat, still as a mouse, staring almost unblinkingly out of the window, his hands folded neatly in his lap while the maelstrom of Hindi swirled around him.

The train is divided into compartments which contain berths for 8 people. Three on one side, three on the other and two perpendicular against the long side of the train. The two middle berths double as seat backs, so only the people with top berths or either of the two side berths can keep their beds during the day. I had one of the middle berths. The man who slept in the top side bunk perpendicular to mine, lay so he could stare straight down my bed. And he did, also unblinkingly, for 36 hours. He didn't even seem to sleep. Whenever I looked up, there he was, with his badly dyed hair pasted onto his head like a painted cap, and his small toothbrush moustache twitching intermittently, unmoved from the last time I looked, appearing to be staring at my feet or up my trousers, it was hard to tell which. I was delighted to note, when he finally did climb down from his eyrie as we approached the outskirts of Delhi, that both his big toenails were painted bright silver.

As we moved slowly towards New Delhi railway station, the speed of the train meant that it was possible to observe in more detail life along the tracks. The early mist framed a group of men perched on the rails playing a game of cards on the sleepers. Behind, from the villages, watching as the train passed, children with shirts and no trousers squatted on the embankment performing morning rituals more usually occurring in the privacy of a bathroom. A man, with a cigarette tucked behind his ear, stood on the roof of his house, holding a long stick in the air rhythmically swirling a shirt around on its tip as a pair of white doves flew around the house. Eventually, with corn in his hand he allowed the pigeons to settle and he watched them, happily, smoking his cigarette as they ate, unchallenged by the rooks and ravens scared away by the flapping shirt.

In one of the station water pumps, a saddhu sat in the marble-lined basin, covered from head to foot in bright yellow turmeric paste, his matted hair standing stiffly, like a child playing with jaundiced bubble bath foam. Unselfconsciously, surrounded by morning commuters, he gradually washed off the paste and returned to a more natural hue.

The two Sikhs sharing my compartment, were uncle and nephew and during the trip wore bandanas instead of the more usual turban, which is presumably their casual headgear. It felt strange seeing them "naked" of their turbans. Both of their scarf things, which probably have a proper name, but I've no idea what it is, were emblazoned with the Nike logo. They were charming, the uncle was more serious and couldn't speak English, but the nephew was sweet and told me that his cousin was coming over from England to stay for a few weeks. He was one of the main thigh-slappers of the journey.

As we neared their disembarkation, the Uncle took a long length of black cloth from a plastic bag. It was his turban. It felt very intimate and intrusive to watch as he took the bandana off and uncurled his amazingly long hair. I should have been polite and looked away but I was fascinated to see how a nondescript length of black cotton could end up in such a dramatic and elegant design as a Sikh's turban. Lying on the bottom berth, I watched voyeuristically as he wrapped it around his head, twisting and winding it into the familiar oval shape, pulling an inside edge over the top of his head. He finished by tucking his symbolic dagger into the folds.

I am now checked into Hotel Singh and Sons, waiting for Mum and Dad to arrive for their Big Adventure in India. Dad has been gearing up to full Maharajah Mode for weeks, so I expect he will return to England with a team of elephants to wow them at Lowther next season.

3 comments:

Maria Efstathiou said...

Dearest hero

I was going to have an early night but ended up reading all your entries this year. Have been missing you soo much Belli. Stalkers? Librarians? (that is my number one favourite story, I cried and cried), near miss visas?
You are not back enough soon enough for me,
Maria x(committed no. 1 Bel fan)

Anonymous said...

Hey Boss,
Seeing a Sikh man with no turban eh?
Is that Punjabi Porn?

Heather Jamieson said...

Hello Bel
Hope your love triangle doesnt explode into anything nasty. Love your train journey descriptions (I think you could publish your blog).I have written you a card and some how lost the email you sent me with your postal address. Am I too late to post to India. Can you email me your postal address again! Am ashamed I havent written before now. Somehow because I always can read your chat it feels like we are staying in touch but of course we arent! Hope you have had lots of good friends and family who have been sending you lovely things. Take care love Heather