Cages of cooped up chickens, thousands of them. It’s got to be what the racket is. I try to flap my own sharp elbows just to move some air; but I push against a barrier of warm, soft flesh stirring a scent of curry. Arms stick to sweat-dripped sides. The train whistles; brakes screech; the rhythmic clicking slows. The sound of chickens is louder and clearer, separating now into different tones and shapes. Distinct words begin to stand out: Hindi and English, thousands of voices, excited children, angry men, boys singing “Masala Doooooooosa!!” in the key of F, “Chai, garum chai!” in the key of D, the melodies woven into dissonant harmony; and I have a few seconds to think before chaos sets in, how these boys who may never have seen each other before, sing as if they have practiced a lifetime to perfect this strangely pleasing aria.
But the threat to my sacred space, ten inches of wood slat bench, is imminent. I’ve warmed it and earned it, holding my ground with stubborn elbows for hours now. Emmy, my companion, nudges me; and I don’ t need to look at her to feel her adrenaline spew out into the mix of stirring passengers.
Sit straight. Don’t move. Hold your ground; hold your bags. Money belt in place. Even before the train has halted, a swarm of people push and clamor towards the moving train. The doors jerk open to let the two opposing human tides fight for their natural courses. Incoming crates and boxes, large jugs and cans, sacks of food in plastic containers, outgoing animals in cages, mattresses, box springs, incoming, more mattresses. Half-cracked windows bite down on imploring arms with open hands holding pakoras and peanuts folded into loose-leaf school notes, spicy chickpeas in smeared ink newspaper cones. The attached bodies and heads on the other side of the glass squeeze and maneuver, faces press to windows.
One mouth, finding the airspace in the open window explodes into our compartment with, “Hello madam. Madam Hello. Fresh coconut? Only 6 rupees, Okay 5 rupees. Big piece 4 rupees.” He is bargaining with himself. No one feels like coconut today. The crowd still maneuvers for space as hundreds more fill the train. Vendors climb down the aisle with radar for patches of open floor, their songs disappearing into the din. Others are pressed into berths holding for dear life their sleeping and eating paraphernalia. Across and up the aisle a mattress leans into the seats; and on it, a man sleeps vertically in the turmoil.
The train whistles and the last of the families fight to the door. Survival of the fittest. There is no official-sounding announcement to please stay clear of electric doors, to please be sure all body parts are on one side or another. The train just starts to move, and people scurry. You’re in or you’re out. Families of five and six patiently stand back when they see that one more body cannot possibly smash in with the others. They watch the train slowly pull away, and one man cheerily spreads a sheet on the platform, as his wife, straightening her sari from the boarding attempt, piles food from plastic containers on plastic plates. Watching from my window, I think that I’ve never seen “living for the moment” so fully and humbly expressed. The kids run around the sheet like atoms to a nucleus. If I were able to struggle my train schedule from my pocket I would see that the next train comes in at 2:26 am, just about when Emmy and I will arrive in Hyderabad. It is now 6 pm.
In our newly refined ten inches of space between us, (that’s five inches each) half of my friend is on top of me, her leg-bones pressing into mine. We both move minute amounts periodically, keeping it up for about an hour until a big shift pushes me into the armpit of a man above me leaning and half-hanging off the luggage rack. He looks as peaceful as if he were in the middle of a restful yoga pose. Two boys relax against my knees and the woman next to me passes gas unabashedly. She rustles around in her plastic mesh sack under my calves for some meat pieces and mango pickle which she places on her lap, then bends forward and over the food to root around some more in her several plastic containers.
Showing me her array of foods, she insists I join her as if we are here for a fine dining experience. Emmy and I are both hungry. But I wonder how I would move my arms from under the two stuffed backpacks on my lap. With everyone else sitting so still and contentedly for so long I am already conspicuous with my nearly constant readjusting. Each shift is like a breath. I smile at the woman with the food and motion to her with my shoulders that I have no free arms. She picks a bit of mango pickle and nods with delight as she smears it in my mouth.
As “dinner” continues this way, a rather large shift takes place. The man with the armpits now leans to the opposite luggage rack causing another body instantly to flow into his previous spot. But this man being slightly larger also manages to claim the three inches on the floor between Emmys feet, with his own big feet, his lower torso now level with Emmy’s face, presently being fed with a forkful of curried cauliflower. As I roll my eyes, they rest on the luggage rack across from me.
“We have seven hours and thirty-five minutes to go,” says Emmy blandly; “Add on to that a couple forty-five-minute stints where the train will just sit in the dark for whatever reason. Add another dahl and rice break for the engineer at about 11:00, a chai break at 1:30 a.m. or so and we might be there by the time it starts to get light. But the good part is that it’s always easier to find a hotel when it’s light.”
I’m not listening to her. The luggage rack–if the caged chickens were put into the “Made in America” crate, and the bag of papayas could fit on top of the pile of blankets, there would be an area twice the width of what we have now. Even with an eighth of the height, it looked promising. “I don’t trust rickshaw drivers at night,” Emmy is saying, “They think we don’t know they’re taking us to their cousin Mahadev’s place.”
I don’t ask her why it is different in the day. I just say, “Emmy. The luggage rack.” Her eyes follow mine, up, and her face unlocks.
Except for the man who helps boost us up, and the two people who, by default, get our ten inches on the bench, not many notice our fifteen minutes of major commotion. We have to slump to fit our heads and for religious reasons people in India generally don’t appreciate the bottoms of feet so we can’t dangle our legs over the edge. Emmy’s legs drape over mine again, the packs are on her lap, a few chicken feathers are waved away as a minor annoyance. Things are looking up–a little cramped but something new, like a great big breath. My lungs take in the fresh air. A hand-stenciled sign on the wall across the aisle reads, “Be kind to your fellow riders; please travel light”. There is more; but the man sleeping on his vertical mattress pushes into the sign, a remnant from another time.
I look down on the dark sea of heads and can see bits of blurred ground through the window below. Here we are on the luggage rack of a train travelling to the great Buddhist Ajanta caves and to see the incredible palace, hand carved from stone—from the top down. It will be worth it, I think. Notice: I can move my elbows. “Be kind to your fellow riders; please travel,” reads Emmy. “I can’t believe they’re encouraging more people to travel! That’s crazy, barely another chicken could fit on this train.”
“Light!” I say, “The mattress is in the way; ‘please travel light,’ it says.”
The way a leg feels renewed with just the slightest movement, so does my whole being with our newest piece of panoramic real estate. From here, with enough neck straining, we can watch it all like an Indian movie, all adventure, romance, and cuisine. But it doesn’t take long for that leg to slowly start paling—a little tingle here, a slight throb there that gradually turns to an aching sensation—then the thoughts, “If I could just tweak it a little to the left,” then the right. A small push or the tiniest pull would do it, until finally you would just have to pull the whole leg out and shake it.
It happens like that on the luggage rack. At first it is just a twinge. I hardly allow myself to notice. I think of our neighbor’s black cat creeping up on a bird—slow and stealthy, he is. The pounce happens before you are even aware. As I shift my lower torso, the familiar sensation of pressure is sudden and unmistakable, pushing from the inside of my bladder. My mind, quick and efficient in this state, scans the heads below for a route to the toilet at the other end of the car but every square inch of ground is filled with human body parts and their accessories. Small movements become excruciating and I have instructed Emmy not to move as well.
“You’ll have to wait till the next stop when there’ll be movement in the crowd,” says Emmy; “You won’t even have to walk; you’ll be pulled right along,” she says, as if it might be fun. But the urgency has taken over and I have to go now. I assess the crowd, feel like I know them all now, know which ones might lend a hand, or a head. I take off my shoes in preparation for stepping on shoulders, heads and thighs, though the idea of bare feet in the hole-in-the-floor bathroom sets me back a little. After 2 months in India, I am still not used to the 3-foot square bathrooms where often it is open ground for doing what you have to do, the hole in the floor just incidental. I like to think that this particular matter ended up over here because the train came to a quick stop at just the wrong time or that matter is there because the piercingly loud whistle scared somebody. I cannot think that somebody just didn’t care—it doesn’t jive with my acutely ingrained antiseptic American senses.
“If something happens,” Emmy warns, and my first thought is, ‘like what? Fall through the hole?’ “I’ll be in the Ladies’ Lounge in the Hyderabad station. I’ll take your pack—I won’t leave. Here, you better take some extra money,” she says and hands me a wad of rupees. The “Ladies’ Lounge”, a piece of the crumbling infrastructure left by the British, was once where those ladies could go to escape the dusty chaos of India itself, and be served a tall glass of iced mint tea from a silver platter by a turbaned Indian servant. Now the lounges mostly hold the female side of large extended families camped out on the floor on blankets and spreads—at certain times of night looking like a morgue with bodies lined up, eyes shut and mouths open, only the snoring giving it away.
Looking down from my luggage perch, I am ready to go. I picture the heads as black and brown stepping stones and begin my journey. My chosen helpers brace their necks for my weight on their heads and offer a hand in mid-air or a shoulder where possible, all the while continuing with whatever it was they had been doing—eating a chapati, feeding a baby, rooting around through age-old detritus, as if I were no more of a nuisance than a fly on their heads. I don’t notice the train slowing or that same faraway sound of chickens. I just hear Emmy’s voice shouting, “Liz, look outside!” I am almost to the bathroom and can just see a blur of color through the window.
The train whistle pierces and people are starting to move about, holding tight to their possessions, shifting gear, gathering belongings. It looks like a major stop and I will be caught in the middle of the two forces. The bathroom handle is almost within my reach when I hear a baby crying from within. I knock and then panic. What will I do if I don’t make it in? I suddenly have some insight into Indian bathrooms’ sanitary conditions. I am pressed hard against the bathroom as throngs of people move by to get out the door with their belongings, wanting to pull me with them. I grab on to the handle thinking that I will tear it off but my grip loosens and I am turned like a pig on a spit as the crowd rolls me away. Emmy’s straining neck, and the woman exiting the bathroom are flashes on my screen when the train doors open and the push starts from the other side, as people get on.
My feet are not on the ground, but the vendors miraculously move in with deftness that I now fully appreciate. One bumps me from behind selling betel nut. The red stain from its juices fill the cracks in his wrinkled smile like fading rivers on a map. He bumps me again, my head hits the wall, and the smell is unmistakable: The bathroom! I struggle to get two solid feet on the ground and squeeze through the door. I slam it shut and look down carefully. It’s a land mine. I hold my breath for as long as possible then take tiny shallow breaths only when I have to. The small window is open to the chaos outside. Though I am barely breathing, my body is drinking in the relative quiet, the beautiful solitude with leftover adrenaline trying to find a place to land. I stand completely still. I do not want to move. I do not want to go back out there. I would like to stay in here forever. I have forgotten my urgency, for this small piece of serenity overtakes all of my senses.
Somebody is knocking on the door. A baby is crying. They knock again and again; and I don’t know how long I have been in this bathroom, but I feel I have made it to heaven. Finally, I look down and carefully move toward the hole in the floor.