Walking into an Indian railway station at a quarter to five in the morning is an evocative way to start a journey. Remarkably quiet for a pubic space in India, sleeping families were scattered around the platform, partway through their journeys and unwilling or unable to pay for a hotel. Having slept under the stars a few days before, I could quite happily have gone with their logic and done the same – it would be searingly hot again in a few hours, but overnight the climate made the station platform a perfect al fresco bedroom. To kill time I downed a couple of glasses of chai with a huddle of railway workers before heading out onto the platform to look for my train – the 5.15am Shatabdi Express to Delhi. First class unfortunately – the “real” Indian railway experience was to elude me on this trip.
Having grown used to the pathetic excuse that is Britain’s privatised shambles of a railway system, it was shock to see passenger names printed on the outside of the carriages, helpful staff, attentive porters and a punctual departure – although having a soldier continually patrol the the train carrying an 1960s Sterling 9mm sub-machine gun rarely happens back home.
There was a likeable dullness to the journey – most of the land between Amritsar and Delhi is billiard-table flat, so it’s fields as far as the eye can see, and little else, until the capital approaches. In England, the first 5 or 6 metres either side of a train track is a negative space – wasteground – a buffer zone between the transport artery and the boundary of the real world, but here in India there is no such thing as negative space. The closer we got to journey’s end, the closer the ramshackle buildings came to the track and the more frequent the glimpses of Indian domestic life which flashed by. As we dug into the city proper, I could have almost reached out and touched the buildings, the laundry, the people.
Delhi station was a pleasure – chaos as usual, but for once I knew where I was, where I was going and how to get there. Not quite a Delhi old hand, but no longer a virgin, I slipped through the advance guard of porters looking for business; steamrollered the mob of taxi drivers with eyes on my duffel and a big fare; and barely registered the hopeful rickshaw drivers as I happily threw myself back into the noise and colour of Pahar Ganj – I could get used to India.
One final trial of strength remained – the Delhi airport departures experience. Even getting into the terminal was a test – each of the doors to the building was numbered and staffed with security laboriously checking tickets to allow you in (or not). As I stood there in the night heat, a few thousand miles away an attractive, 30-something market researcher in London was just finishing her work for the day. I have no idea if she was looking forward to her job the following morning, but I hope she was – we should all strive for happiness in the workplace.
Spin back around the globe to Delhi and ahead of me was 15 hours of being checked, rechecked, X rayed, searched, told to stand here, told not to stand there and being ordered to wait behind the line until called for. Finally, just past customs at Heathrow arrivals, I had free will returned to me – I could do what I wanted, how I wanted. Standing in front of me was the market researcher, asking if I wouldn’t mind answering a few questions about my airport experience. Have a guess what the answer was…