Ralph had been in his job at international headquarters office for only a month when the invitation to visit India came to his desk. There was no internet to check out details of the country in those days so he asked his secretary to do research on India and give him a brief summary of her findings. It took her a week to get this report together as she had to do it in spare time due to a heavy load she carried filtering correspondence and arranging itineraries for her boss, but her report was informative and Ralph read it with excitement. He could hardly wait to travel the long commute home that evening and discuss these findings with Beth.
Beth nodded her head in excitement. “I’d like to see India too! Imagine riding elephants and seeing all those maharaja’s palaces!”
Ralph pursed his lips as he thought about her response. “Could you get time off work? You just started working at the hospital so wouldn’t want to jeopardize that would you? I’d have to pay for your ticket of course.
A few days later Beth met Ralph at the door when he returned from work and excitedly told him hospital administration had agreed to give her two weeks off to accompany her husband. Things were a bit slack at the hospital at this time of the year so administration was happy to give her leave without pay.
So on the appointed date they were on their way to India. It was a time before stringent restrictions placed on travel made airports a safer place, so an expat from the Southern Asia regional office met them at the airport and guided them skilfully through immigration and customs.
It was only as they left arrivals building and were confronted by a deluge of people shouting and gesticulating that Ralph began to question his secretary’s research. Ralph stood stiffly in his best suit, a little crumpled after such a long journey but he had to project an image so turned in a forced relaxed manner and looked inquiringly at his host for the moment. Beth smoothed her equally crumpled best dress and touched her sculptured hair to see it had been cemented in place. She held her husband’s hand in desperation. This had not been included in the report.
They’d already been shocked when strangers had grabbed their luggage inside the terminal after a nod from the host. Who were these people and was it safe to let them handle their luggage? They’d been reassured their luggage was safe, but they glanced frequently at the new luggage custodians to make sure nothing was missing.
But their main attention was on their expatriate host who was busy negotiating with a gesticulating crowd of men who their host told them as an aside were taxi drivers. Finally, a deal was reached with a turbaned man who led them to his taxi. He proceeded to strap their luggage to the roof of the taxi piling one case upon another. Ralph turned to his host Will trying to disguise his irritation.
“Is our luggage safe there? I thought your office would have a bigger vehicle to meet us?”
Will shrugged, “We use taxis here.
The turbaned driver jumped into the driver’s seat and his helper took the front passenger seat.
Will motioned to Ralph and Beth to get in the back seat and squeezed himself in.
“Can he turn on the air-conditioning?” Beth felt faint in the oppressive heat and being squashed in the middle made her sick.
“They don’t have air-conditioning,” said Will in his matter of fact way. He’d been born in India and returned on assignment after college education abroad so couldn’t understand why these people were being so formal and difficult.
He turned to look at the distressed couple and suddenly felt a tinge of alarm. How would they handle the train journey to Calcutta?
After freshening up Will appeared at their guest room with his wife Carol to invite them to see New Delhi and eat their first Indian meal at a nearby five-star hotel. Ralph told him Beth was asleep after their exhausting journey.
Carol had not been born in India and understood the culture shock these people would be feeling. She talked with Ralph and suggested they change clothes for the Calcutta trip as it would be long, hot and tiring. She’d be accompanying them with Will to help them with the language problem and see all arrangements made actually happened so their trip would not be spoiled. It had been thought if they went by air they’d miss on seeing the countryside and observing different cultures as they passed through each district. Carol was beginning to have a bad feeling about that decision.
It was a stretch to find something appropriate for the train journey. They’d expected to be in their best clothes for each appointment, so they were unsure about the appropriateness of clothing in their considerable luggage. Carol had suggested they may want to decrease the number of luggage items they took on the train. This was resisted at first until it was explained how difficult it would be to keep track of all those items on a long train journey. So eventually they understood that to be the best course of action as they’d be returning to New Delhi later before taking other appointments to the south.
So that evening they took their taxi to the station and fought their way through red coat coolies to their reserved apartment. Will handled it all expertly and as they settled Ralph and Beth into the compartment Beth asked Carol where their apartment was on the train.
“We’ll be occupying this compartment with you, which bunk do you and your husband prefer, the upper or lower bunk?
Beth gasped in surprise! “But how can we be private. How do we get dressed and undressed in front of each other?”
“It’s simple,” said Will who overheard the conversation. He was busy directing coolies as they bought a black tub into the carriage followed by other coolies with tongs of large ice blocks which were deposited into the tub as Ralph looked on incredulously.
“Air-conditioning!” Said Will pointing at the ceiling fans whirring and oscillating above the tubs of ice.
“We’ll change the tubs and ice every few hundred kilometres. Don’t worry, it’s all arranged.”
Will reached into a cloth bag and extracted separate pieces of cloth. “One each!” He nodded toward Ralph.
“I’ll show you how it’s done, you’ll be quite comfortable on the journey.”
Will deftly spread the lungi and stepped into it drawing it up to this waist. He then quickly and expertly let his long pants drop to the ground, tied the lungi in place and folded his pants placing them carefully in the cloth bag.
“See, quite private, no embarrassment at all!”
Ralph nodded weakly and accepted the garment glancing at Beth who’d sat on the lower bunk in shock at the performance.
Carol produced a loose fitting garment and gave it to Beth who looked at it unhappily. She smiled reassuringly. Later we’ll go to the rest room at the end of the corridor and one of us can stand guard while the other changes in the rest room.
“Can we do that when it gets dark?” Said Beth softly.
Carol nodded, “OK.”
So later that evening Carol and Beth headed for the restroom. Carol suggested she go first to check and see everything was OK. She’d change then explain it all to Beth. Soon she appeared from behind the door looking relaxed in her loose fitting garment.
“It’s quite modest,” said Carol as Beth examined it and gave it a nod of approval. “It’s a bit crowded on those bunks with husband and wife sleeping together so you’ll be happy with this and you can change early in the morning again.”
“The light has quit in the restroom so let me explain the layout. You have a wash basin but be careful to hang your discarded clothes on the hook behind the door as most toilets on trains in India are a hole in the floor and you don’t want to have anything fall there. You don’t need to engage the bolt lock as its handle seems a bit wobbly. I’ll be here at the door so don’t worry if you leave a crack to get some light in the room.”
Beth accepted the loose fitting garment and bravely entered the room. The lurching of the train and wind and noise coming up through the hole in the floor scared her as she held onto the wash basin and slowly removed her clothes, she thought of slipping the loose fitting garment over her head but felt exposed leaving that door open a crack, so on impulse shut the door and bolted it. The room blacked out completely and in fear she pulled the handle of the bolt hard to open it. To her horror the bolt handle came loose and struck the floor bouncing across the floor. Beth screamed!
Carol banged on the door. “What’s the matter, open up!”
“I can’t!” screamed Beth. The handle of the bolt came off and it’s dark, I can’t see anything!”
“Now it was Carol’s turn to panic. She ran down the corridor and brought the men running to the rest room.
Will spoke. “Try and calm down and listen. Can you put your finger on the bolt, press the door to take pressure off the bolt and try and move it out of locked position?”
“I found the hole, but I can’t move it!” Beth burst into uncontrolled sobbing.
Will turned to Carol, “do you have a nail file?”
Carol dug around in her handbag and pulled out a nail file handing it to Will.
Will tapped on the door until Beth stopped crying. “I’m going to wiggle a nail file around under the door and I want you to bend down and find it. Let me know when you feel it and I’ll release it so you can pull it through and keep tightly in your hand. Don’t drop it.”
“I’ve got it!” Said Beth sniffing.
“Good, now I want you to find the bolt handle hole, put the sharp end of the nail file into it, press against the door to take the pressure off the bolt and try and slide the bolt into the unlock position.”
There was a scraping sound and the door swung open followed by Beth who rushed into Ralph’s arms in her under clothes.
At that precise moment the train ground to a halt at a station turning the dim lit corridor into bright light. Faces appeared at windows down the length of the carriage shouting their wares.
“Garam chai, tanda pani!” which in translation is hot tea, cold water. Station sellers took in the scene quickly and broke into excited chatter as Ralph slipped the loose garment over his sobbing wife and the group fled to their compartment locking the door. Occupants of other compartments in the carriage had burst out of their compartments to see what all the excitement was about.
That restroom was treated with absolute respect for the rest of their journey making sure someone was standing guard at the door whenever the women needed to use the facility.
Surprisingly Beth rallied after the experience and fulfilled her duties for the rest of the trip. She and Ralph discovered the country really was all the secretary’s report had contained. They marvelled at the kaleidoscope of scenes and experiences in this timeless land and came away with a deep respect for the people.
As they returned to North America they even found it in their hearts to laugh at their experience on the Delhi to Calcutta train and share it with others.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2016 All rights reserved”
Note: The story has been fictionalized, names have been substituted, but while the dialogue in the story is not accurate the actual experience in a train restroom by visiting expatriates really happened.
12 thoughts on “Train to Calcutta”
A good story well worth repetition. When we visited India my first sensory confrontation was the smell followed by the noise and then the multitude of colorfully clad people. On our train ride we sat in visitor’s first class but I marveled at the crowd of people sleeping on the platform waiting for the train, When it arrived they scrambled on just as they do in movies of India. My most poignant memory is of the railroad pigs. They are large and fat and feed off human waste because the railway right-of-way is the villager’s toilet.
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Yes there are the downsides and I suppose that is one of the wonders of travel in India. The skyscrapers of Bombay with slums surrounding the city. The history of New Delhi and other notable parts against modern lifestyles. The middle class in India now exceeds the population of the United States, and their engineers are world class along with their industry. The beauty of the mountains against the stark living of the plains. Lush growth of the monsoons to fade into a dustbowl in summer. It’s a land of contrasts, and in spite of the obvious downsides I loved the experience.
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As always Ian you present stories with such panache! There is a piece of me that was laughing uproariously and another piece of me that wanted to say, ‘oh do stop being such twits!’
So happy they did finally see the country for its beauty and the humor in the situation as well.
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Yes I had the same reaction as you when I heard the real story. 🙂
Poor Beth, what a frightening experience that must have been. Very interesting and fun read my friend. Hugs
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I’m sure it must have been terrifying to be locked up in the dark in an unfamiliar place. I got the story second hand from someone who claims to have travelled with them but of course the dialogue is fictional.
It is for sure a very interesting story and you wrote it so well it was almost like watching a movie as I read.
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One of my Indian friends said it would make a good movie. 🙂
You really took a page out of the old days and presented this good read. Authentic – that experience in the rest room. During my first train ride in India in 1992, I was appalled at the state of the “restroom”. It was bad enough for a guy – I can’t imagine how any woman can …
I’m very sure many first timers to Indian trains had experienced similar shocks. And that hole in the floor – is very much there, I assure you.
The thing that really got to me was the water tap – you turn it on, and some warm brownish water trickles out. How is one to wash hands?
In all my subsequent trips, I brought a box full of wet wipes 🙂
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You kind of get used to the way things work there Eric, and believe me they do work. India has advanced rapidly since independence and will be a formidable power in future with a substantial manufacturing capability. Of course villages will always lag behind the economic powerhouse major centres but even they are discarding the neem stick for the toothbrush which is sad as the former is better. The hole in the floor is a bit confronting in a lurching train. lol.
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I held my breath literally, waiting for Beth to find her way out of the toilet/bathroom.This story took me right into the scene, into India and I literally felt as if I too was a passenger on the train. Thanks for an exciting story and whoever actually experienced that, all I can say is ‘well done you!’
The story was told to me in the early period of our time in India. Of course I’ve fictionalize the story but its based on a real situation.