Tucker and I are planted on platform number 9 waiting where the porter has deposited us for the 3 p.m. Tippu Express to Mysore. It is 1:30 p.m. and Tuck has settled in for the long wait, putting his backpack down on the dirty cement platform and perching atop it with easy adaptability. I am standing at parade rest, one hand gripping my matched luggage.
It is hot, but not oppressive, and the hundred or two other passengers have made themselves as comfortable as possible, chatting, rearranging belongings, trying to position themselves on the platform to be located properly for their car when it arrives, or staring at us. I am trying not to stare back, but with little success. Oddly, there are no flies despite the fecund air and abundant garbage.
The drama of India has elated and drained us. Bi-polar with sensory overload, we pitch from mood to mood. Despair at Mumbai airport as we contemplate the crowds, the scammers, the slums and the insane scrum of people, auto-rickshaws, mini-cabs, trucks, motorcycles and oxcarts. Elation at the charming and peaceful restaurant we happened into off a dark street lined with sleeping families later that night. India affects your soul, I can see that already, although I can’t yet quantify how. Perhaps an observer can gauge one’s spiritual velocity by observing these changes from afar, the way astronomers can gauge the speed of distant heavenly bodies by the color shift in the light they emit; but we are too much in the moment for that.
The combination of jet lag, discomfort and apprehension pushes me over the edge shortly after we land at Chhatrapatti Shivaji Airport. Anxiously contemplating our night-time arrival in the madness of downtown Mumbai with an excess of baggage and a deficit of one hotel reservation, I may have unjustly chastised my son for our poor planning. He may have later indirectly indicated that I was an emotionally tone deaf throwback. It is all unclear now as the fog of despair recedes. It was a small friction and the heat has blown away with the wind.
An earlier train has just arrived in the well, disgorging its passengers onto our platform. It will soon recharge itself and head back whence it came. We are watching two men lugging an ancient cast iron sewing machine down the platform suspended from two short ropes grasped in one hand of each. They are struggling slightly, but laughing about it, happy it seems with their treasure.
India Rail has at least seven different classes of carriage on its comprehensive and surprisingly efficient rail system: First Class AC (or executive chair car on a few special express trains like the Shatabdi Express), 2-tier AC sleeper, First Class, AC 3-tier sleeper, AC chair car, sleeper class and second class. Not sure what to expect, we have guiltily paid the top fare, 450 rupees (about nine dollars), for the trip from Bangalore to the site of Tuck’s conference at the vast Infosys campus in Mysore 75 miles south of us.
From 10,000 miles away this profusion of classes seemed a poignant political commentary, highlighting the rigid caste system that separates rich from poor on this crowded subcontinent. Here in front of us we see a bunch of ancient, soiled, blue and grey rail cars barely distinguishable one class from another, all slightly foreboding and none in any way elegant.
I have paid my red-coated porter 47 rupees for carrying my too-heavy-for-me suitcase on his head down a long set of cement stairs and through a dank and stinky tunnel under the tracks and up to our platform. He has deposited us at exactly the right place for the AC chair car, for which I am grateful. Such little kindnesses help me keep my center amid the chaos.
The earlier train is now loading and I notice Tuck watching, as I am, the occasional discharge of effluent from a pipe projecting from the bottom of one car. Our eyes meet and Tuck winces, “Is that what I think it is?” I nod yes, but point out the long white trail of chlorinated lime a railroad worker has spread up and down the track on a perfect line to blot up and disinfect the discharge from that pipe and others like it.
Then my attention shifts to a beautiful little girl, maybe 3 years old. She is interacting with her sari-clad mother and grandmother. Although I am often embarrassed to mistake a girl for a boy and vice versa at that age, I am sure she is a girl because of the dangly gold earrings she is wearing. She has a hauntingly beautiful face with wide brown eyes, short wavy black hair and the burnt cork and chocolate complexion of southern India. There are two round black marks on her face, one almost in the center of her forehead and one on her right cheek. I am not sure if these are of religious significance or birth marks, but the lack of symmetry only adds to her charm.
She has been circling her mother, hiding under her orange sari, then popping out with a delighted smile on her face. I notice a cookie crumb hanging from the corner of her lip, then the cookie in her hand just as she drops it onto the platform. There is a pregnant pause as we all stare at the cookie. I am silently screaming in my head, “No, do not pick that up!” She picks it up.
We wait with ‘bated breath to see what happens next. To our relief, her mother grabs the hand with the cookie and wrestles against determined resistance to remove it. The little girl starts to wail as grandmother frantically searches her bag for a replacement. Cookie number two soon pops forth. We think all will be well, but the little girl’s commitment to cookie number one has not yet lost its force. Finally, she releases it and takes the new one. Mother quickly tosses the old one into the track-well eight feet away, and the tension fades from the air. But just as we are all turning to go about our business, the little girl bolts for the edge of the well to retrieve the lost cookie. Two are better than one, she thinks. Tuck and I are frozen in our tracks, afraid she will pitch over the edge as our train begins to pull into the station, but mother’s reflexes are better tuned and she lunges and snatches her daughter’s wrist before disaster strikes. We all smile at the happy ending, and then our train arrives.
I don’t think of the incident again until I am ripping open a packet of chocolate cookies to share with Tuck as the Tippu Express clicks down the rails. I shouldn’t eat chocolate, to which I am profoundly allergic, but I love it and I rationalize that I will undoubtedly soon be sick as a dog with traveler’s stomach anyway. We are happily reviewing the day, looking out the window, snapping pictures and sharing a few words with our fellow passengers. As the package empties I see there are an odd number of cookies remaining. I give Tuck one of the last three and eat another myself. I will split the last one between us.
Tuck has been alternately writing a piece for his blog on a little netbook he carries and gleefully snapping pictures with his new Leica camera. I am using an old Canon point and shoot and have a case of photographer’s jealousy as I see how clearly and colorfully his snaps appear on the crisp LED screen. Mine are adequate, but grainy and gray by comparison. Just then we pass a man driving a gayly painted oxcart down a dirt road. Tuck lunges for his camera. I lunge for the package and slip the last cookie into my mouth as he looks out the window.
Two are definitely better than one.