Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Lara edged forward towards the counter, second in line and soon to be up. The train station hummed with the usual natter of distant tannoy announcements and hurried chatter of the hordes. The smell of chai stands, steam from the trains and cigarette smoke lit up her senses and helped further waken her. India never sleeps anyway she thought, as she watched the chaotic throngs moving in every direction and the epic display of bright, intricate clothing distinct to the variety of religions and regions in the country. She was surrounded by a mix of languages, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and English being spoken by the blend of families, business folk and labourers, all competing to get where they needed to go. In a country of strict caste system and segregation, space in train stations was everybody’s game, and no advantages were granted based on religion or social status. “Next please’’ said the ticket clerk, casually waving his hand to summon her to the ticket desk.
“One single to Central station please,” she said.
“Certainly madam,” the clerk said without looking up.
“Is that the final stop on this route?” she enquired.
“No madam. Central station isn’t the final stop, it is maybe eight, or nine stops before the final one,” the clerk said, still not looking up, but clicking away at the keyboard, as the ticket machine hummed.
Her heart dropped and a frown crept over her face. Rummaging through her waist bag, she pulled two notes out and handed them over. Perhaps sensing her despondency, the clerk looked up.
“No worries madam, the train journey is still a long time, plenty of time for sleeping,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
She met his smile with a slight one of her own. One of her favourite things about India were those moments of unconditional kindness from the people, intentionally warm and unintentionally reassuring. His encouragement didn’t solve the problem, but it was welcomed nonetheless.
“Thank you,” she said, accepting the ticket. She turned around to pick up the backpack at her feet and stepped to the side to allow the next customer to move to the ticket desk. He was a middle aged man, with a thick set of hair and big amber eyes. Smiling broadly, he proceeded to pick her bag up for her.
“No, thank you, but I’ve got it.”
“Just helping madam,” he said, smiling broadly.
“Oh, I know, thank you. Don’t worry I can manage.”
He gave a quick wiggle of his head and walked to the desk.
She set off toward platform three, where the train was due to depart in fifteen minutes. The train at platform three was a dusty, older model. The country’s intricate and well-serviced train system, which was the primary method of transport for its citizens, meant there was a wide variety of trains. Inter-city trains were sleeker and more modern, with the older, rustier models saved for rural, and off the beaten track towns and villages.
Which is exactly the type of place she was heading. A wildlife obsessed child, one who grew up fantasising about Mogli in the Jungle Book and avidly listening to David Attenborough’s iconic narrations of all things in the natural world, her destination threatened to be all that and more. A national park tour booked, with the possibility of seeing anything from monkeys to big cats, the inner-child in her bristled with excitement at what could become a spiritual experience. The flip side of all this, was that such a magical place could only exist far away from any major city, hidden remotely in the country’s forests and hills. The town where she was to get off at, served as an outpost for visitors and tourists to explore the national park and surrounding area. She had been told it was a one horse town, with a scattering of guest houses, hotels and some shops which sold cheap animal souvenirs and teddies.
She boarded the train on one of the middle carriages, navigating her way down the aisle amidst the hustle and bustle. As she would be travelling for over roughly seven hours, she had opted to pay for a bed, in the hope of at least getting a couple of hours sleep. Given the remote route and location, the possibility of a first class train, with female only sections was off the table. For towns like where she was heading, the trains catered largely for locals, which didn’t segregate the genders and didn’t offer the comforts of a higher class of train. This required serious caution.
“Top bunk, always, and preferably in the middle of a carriage. Always made me feel safer love,” Angela, a backpacker from London, had told her in Goa.
“Yes and always over a family or group of women if possible. You can forget about relying on the number of your pre-booked bed if it’s a rural train. It’s everybody for themselves on those,” Lucy from Perth had agreed.
“I use my backpack as a pillow. I actually find it comfy as well as more secure. It helped me sleep, even a little,” another woman had said.
The Ashram Lara had stayed in Goa had been a beneficial experience for many reasons. The countless blogs, forums and Instagram videos on solo female travelling in India had been helpful, but nothing beat the real life experiences, tips and warnings from travellers actually in the country.
Lara continued on, keen eyed for a bunk that would suit her needs, and feeling pangs of anxiety. She entered another carriage, in what she loosely gauged was about three from the last. Immediately to the left of the aisle, was a berth with four beds, arranged in upper and lower bunks, which were occupied by what looked like a grandmother and two children. The upper bunk on the left looked free, and she moved forward.
“Hi, is this bed taken?” Lara asked.
The two children, a boy and a girl, had been play-wrestling at the foot of the woman, who was busy unloading various blankets and pillows onto the bed below the one Lara wanted. They stopped and looked up at her, fascinated by this alien looking lady. The older woman also looked up, smiled and gave a gentle flick of her right hand and wiggle of her head, in that innate way only Indian people could.
“Certainly Madam, the bed is not taken.”
Eagerly, Lara reached out to hoist her bag on to the top bunk, tiptoeing around the children, who although had resumed playing, still watched her every twitch.
“You are moving to make way for madam now, isn’t it?,” the grandmother said, with a gentle authority. The children immediately moved aside and sat at the foot of their grandmother.
“Oh they’re fine, honestly, no problem at all.”
The grandmother gave a quick smile before instantly returning to the unpacking and arrangement of the bags. Her clothes were the colourful, traditional type, typically worn by women in India, colour and patterns that symbolise a curious freedom and liberty, in what is a largely restrictive country for women.
Lara busied herself by unpacking her sleeping bag and essentials on the bunk, as more last minute passengers piled on to the train, bags and cases being carried on anywhere from backs to heads. As the train prepared to pull away, a last minute straggler entered the berth. It was the man in the queue at the station.
“Hello Madam, nearly missed the train.”
He grinned at her as he acknowledged the grandmother and kids and threw his bags on the bunk opposite Lara’s. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, with jet black hair, and a slight birthmark on his neck. He was dressed in clothes common to the rural, poorer regions.
“Hi,” Lara said politely.
He continued to smile at her before speaking to the grandmother in Hindi. Using this as her cue, Lara rolled over, gently pulling the sleeping bag over her, closing her eyes as the train rumbled out of the station.
“It’s a bad idea for you to go over there, I’ve heard endless bad things about it. Trust me, somewhere a bit friendlier, with safer hotels is what a girl of your age needs,” her father had told her. Yeah with a golf course and a bar that served all the comforts of home she thought bitterly. Her father had recently returned from a golfing weekend in Spain, and had declared on numerous occasions that the hotel had served up ‘the best scrambled egg you’d get anywhere-and I’d know’. In the land of manchego, paella and tapas, her father had revered the scrambled egg, and the fact that a ‘bit of salmon with it’ had tipped the scales for him, showed that when it came to foreign experiences, they were oceans apart. They had never gotten on. Her sense of adventure had rankled him throughout her life, from choosing the guitar instead of gymnastics, and later Nirvana over whatever girl bands her father assumed she should like; his conservatism had always stifled her. The fact that she had spent most of her early adult life thousands of miles from home, as often as she could afford wasn’t lost on her. Her mother’s support thankfully negated her father, and her trademark ‘That’s my girl’ in the airport before any trip served as fuel to Lara.
“Some chai for you madam.”
Her brooding thoughts were interrupted by the older man in the berth, who was now standing at the door talking to the boy who served chai.
“Some lovely chai for you madam, it’s warm and very fresh,” he said, rummaging in his pockets for loose change.
“No thank you, I’m ok,” she said with a slight frown.
The man chattered away in Hindi to the boy, while the grandmother, now reading a story to the two tiring children, shot Lara a quick smile. The train had settled into its journey, and people were now moving about freely in the aisle and in the berths. People bought chai, conversed, ate pre-packed meals and some men smoked out of the windows between the carriages. The landscape outside was low-lying, lush green forests, which occasionally opened up to reveal open grasslands. She stared out at it, enchanted. What great mysteries lay hidden in the land of Hanuman and Shiva? What wildlife lay in wait- a tiger, eyes on its prey, waiting to pounce? Marauding elephants resting after a day’s trek? Tingles of excitement spread through her body like sherbet.
Her concern now wasn’t about not sleeping, but about not waking up for her stop. The vastness of India meant any missed stop could be very costly, and take hours and possibly days to regain. The comfort of going to the last stop was that she couldn’t miss it, and would be woken up by the train conductors if still asleep. The estimated time of a journey differed. Fellow backpackers leaned on the longer side, coming from places used to Western efficiency and privilege. The locals undercut those estimates with their own laissez-faire attitude to timing. Despite variable journey times, the Indian train network was comprehensive, and one of those juxtapositions that made travelling there both a charm and challenge. Relaxing back into her bunk, she set the alarm on her phone for four hours away and closed her eyes.
She awoke to the rocking of the train, but not her alarm. Panicked, she reached over for her phone, which was under the pillow. The lights had been dimmed to allow people to sleep. As she turned over she saw a figure beside the bed. It was the older man. She instinctively recoiled back, and sat up.
“What are you doing!?”
She looked around. The grandmother and her kids were no longer in the carriage, she was all alone.
The man was standing right beside her, expressionless.
“Move away now,” she said with greater urgency.
She looked around. The other berth across the aisle didn’t appear to have anyone else either. The man now leaned over her.
“It is now.”
She recoiled as far back as she could, back thudding against the wall behind her. Panic set in.
“Get away from my bed now, hey! Is anyone there?”
Her cries were now directed at hopefully anyone in any berth who could hear her. Someone, anyone. She heard nothing, not even a stir.
“I’m telling you it’s now.”
The man was now standing over her, but between her and the berth entrance. Her heart began to sink.
“Help!” she shouted.
His face now had a slightly surprised look, as if he was put out by her reaction. His tone became more urgent.
“Listen. It’s now!” He leaned even closer.
She thought about hitting out. She looked at the berth’s entrance which he was standing in the way of. She was still on the bed. She would have to jump off the bed and get past him. She felt sick.
She felt terribly alone. The countless blogs and forums she had read, her father, and his generic warnings, the stories, either gossip or fact that did the rounds in hostel dorms or guesthouse foyers amongst western backpackers. The fear for solo women travellers
“Now,” he said impatiently.
“Get away from me now,” she shouted, this time with despair. He hadn’t moved.
“It’s now, the station.”
She stopped. Everything had slowed down to an almost numbed pace.
“What.. what did you say?”
“Central station is now.”
“But… I thought-”
“I heard you in the train station, I am sorry for waking, but your stop is now.”
He moved back and she sat forward. Rummaging for her phone, the time was nearly at four hours, her alarm due to go at any stage.
“But the train journey is seven hours to central station?”
“No, total duration of train journey is seven hours, Central station is next.”
He moved quickly away from the bed and sat back up on his own. So that’s what the rocking was, she thought. She sat back against the wall. Her breathing, which had been short and rapid, had slowed slightly, her heartbeat still up. He stared at her with a mixture of disappointment and embarrassment before picking his book up again. Guilt surged all over her body.
“I’m very sorry... I didn’t know and.. I was afraid,” she said.
He gave a wave of his hand but didn’t look up.
“It’s just I, I thought-”
“Central station is now,” he said flatly.
Clicking into gear, she grabbed her backpack and began rolling her sleeping bag up. The tannoy crackled overhead in the regional language, she thought she heard the word ‘central’.
“Thank you. I’m very sorry, I would have missed my stop if it wasn’t for you,” she said.
“You should leave now,” he said, frowning and still not looking at her.
She grabbed her backpack, and rolled up sleeping bag and exited the berth. The tannoy system crackled again as the train slowed. She saw a dusty old sign on the platform which had ‘Central Station’ underneath the regional dialect’s version of the name, spelt in characters she didn’t recognise. The train slowed down, preparing to stop. Her prior anxiety and panic slowed with it, the guilt less so. As the train doors opened with a hiss, she stepped off the train and onto the platform.