Encounters on an Indian train

Whisky trickles down the crack between the bed and the carriage wall and anoints my sleeping bag liner. I express irritation with a deliberately loud snort, audible over the rattle of the train. There is movement in the bunk above. The drunk soldier lowers his head – he wears an inane grin. It is the first sound I have made in three hours and he sees it as a victory, re-opening the window of communication between us. His face is upside-down and shining in the humidity; a thin waxy moustache adorns his lip. I will not make the mistake of interacting. I position myself in the middle of the bunk and raise my book high so that it precisely blocks his gleaming face. Half a minute passes and I tentatively peer over my book. The face still hangs down with a glazed expression of geniality. I glare at it and shrug as if to ask what it wants – too much communication – it speaks. ‘Hello.’

I boarded this train seventeen hours ago in Chennai and I have another thirteen until I reach Delhi. Initially I was quite friendly to this tiresome neighbour who came and sat uninvited on the end of my bunk. He asked the usual questions about where I was from, why I was in India and if I was married. I spoke of a fictional husband called Derek who was a cellist by profession and a wrestler in his free time. My companion quietly mused this over and asked where he was. I replied he was working in England. This was enough encouragement and with a sickly smirk he said I was beautiful. My heart began to sink so I absorbed myself in my journal, but he remained on the end of my bunk. He observed me silently for fifteen minutes and then asked if I would like to kiss him. After this we had a heated exchange of words in which I mentioned my love for Derek and something about respecting foreign women. He reluctantly returned to his bed to shower me in potent Indian liqueur.

Now he talks again, seeming to have forgotten that we are not on speaking terms.

I ignore his remark and scowl resentfully. Amused by my reaction he lets out a squawk of laughter and moves away to resume his whiskey quaffing. I am having a hate moment with India. It seems natural that a country of contrasts should provoke a myriad of reactions. The two boys opposite roll their eyes apologetically and I buy a six penny chai. A loud snore comes from above and I stand up to see the soldier stretched across his bunk with an empty bottle of fifty percent whisky beside him. He is out cold and a thin line of spittle falls from his open mouth. I silently thank India for distilling such strong alcohol and triumphantly raise my cup of chai to the boys opposite. We all start to laugh.

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