The beginning was inauspicious as they say in India. I had no ticket, the train was full, and the proposed journey was 14 hours in an overnight train. But if nothing else, you learn about unfolding in this country of over a billion souls.
‘Woman’s carriage’ said the platform inspector, with that Indian head waggle, that solved all problems, neither yes, nor no, and both.
I’d forgotten about this very Indian institution of a carriage only for women. The train arrived gently rolling onto a dark Goan platform, the women’s carriage was the end Buggy. I was taken in hand immediately by the saried women in my section. It is surprising how much communication is without language, theirs being unknown to me: Maharastrian, tribal. They were openly curious, none of that looking the other way or surreptitious side glances I find in English trains, but direct eyes and fingers pointing to my shoes, a book, whatever – I was like a David Attenborough animal to them, there to be explored, candidly but far from malicious, in fact quite tender and giggly. After an hour of this entertainment, and a brief con-flab between them, one found enough English to say: ‘Time bed’ pointing to the upper bunk.
I obeyed and sure enough at the next station the carriage filled with women, women carrying babies, children, children carrying babies, chickens, a goat, cloth covered reed baskets for tomorrows market, until from the hight were I lay I could not see any floor space. I understood the women had taken care of me, ensuring I had a place to lay horizontal my western body.
I can best describe it as an everlasting chorus of birds, that lasted throughout that night. The high pitch of unbroken women voices, an occasional cry of a child soon soothed, some laughter. Sometimes I’d catch a word I understood, like a number ‘Ak So Bara’. Passing through dark landscape or distant fires of villages in an Indian night, the cooler but never cold air, coming through the open bared window, we were a safe rectangle on wheels of all the pent up steam of the mother in law controlled marriages, released into the safe holding of fellow women. The exchange of knowledge, that timeless banter about life, the price of rice, the death of a loved one, the jealousy of another, the rape of a friend, the birth of a child. In my eyes closed mind these thoughts like the turnings of a kaleidoscope passed by to the steady but never fast momentum of the train.
Occasionally the potentially jarring voice of a man came, but it was a song, sung through the carriages ‘Chai, Chai, Corfee, Corfee, Garam Chat, Garam Corfee’, the chai wallah, passing perhaps swiftly through this vortex of women. This chatter, this, bird song, like a white noise, lulled me to sleep on my hard wood board. I felt unbelievably safe.
Ever since that time I have been able to sleep anywhere – like Margaret Thatcher I am told. The background noise is immaterial, it brings back the memory from that Indian train: bird song.
Toms creative writing Subject Sleep