Essays 2

 

Off Track and On

   by Frank Light, Jr.

 

 

India could hit a first-timer like a slap in the face. Well, more a pat on the cheek, a reminder you weren’t in Kansas anymore. Or Pakistan, for that matter. Or – get a grip – Afghanistan. Women – remember them?– as well as men were hawking jewelry, scarves, and snacks. The oldest of the bunch, by far, swept the platform. A cow grazed beside the tracks. Crows cawed. Horns honked. Engines sputtered. A cougher spat. The stationmaster paced fretfully, hands behind his back. A beggar turned his palm up, muttering.  Kids asked the two backpackers in attendance – that’d be Chuck and me – for money, pens, candy, anything to keep the conversation going. Clearly tis crowd knew to take care of business before the sun got any higher – and before the train left for Delhi.

Chuck and I bought bananas, biscuits, bidi cigarettes, and warm tea to wash it down. Reveling in the clutter and clatter, we felt we had arrived even though our journey had just begun. We were American Peace Corps volunteers on vacation. One year down, one to go. Some of our group went to Nepal, others to Greece, one to Seychelles. By that time, half had simply up and quit. We couldn’t do that. I mean, what then?

Chuck joined straight out of college. I had a few years on him but was still finding my way. Weren’t we all? The Sixties had moved on, leaving us to the uncertain Seventies. In song, trains signified loss, a parting of ways, a missed opportunity. They also conveyed escape, mystery, and the romance of distant places. To Chuck and me they meant connection to the larger world and a step up in comfort after bus and minivan rides to Peshawar. Afghanistan had no trains, although the Brits once offered to extend the tracks from the Khyber Pass. The Afghan king declined. He saw the iron horse as a Trojan horse.  

* * *

Pakistan was different, no doubt about it. A sentient chaos smoldered like a fuse. Compared to rural Afghanistan, where Chuck and I had been posted, Peshawar came off as both spooky and orderly. It represented a break but not the clean one we were after. We caught the next train to Lahore, our gateway to India. We went second class, a Peace Corps-like compromise between first and third. Although the seats were hard, many were empty, and we could stretch out undisturbed. At daybreak the train pulled in to Lahore, a terminal so large and cavernous it had its own weather inside. Outside, the air was as hot and dry as Afghanistan’s.

India and Afghanistan had one major thing in common – Pakistan for a neighbor. Afghanistan claimed parts of Pakistan (including Peshawar), Pakistan claimed all of Kashmir, and separatists in East Pakistan looked to India for protection. Under those circumstances, and with two wars in the last 25 years, not to mention a recent plane hijacking, no train was going to cross the border. Travelers had to cover that last stretch by bus, taxi, tanga, rickshaw, shoe leather, or some combination thereof.

On the Pak side the guards were crisp in speech and movement but relaxed as to our documents. What did  they care? We were leaving. On the Indian side, a guard asked about our no-fee passports. He’d never seen one before. He waved me through and then I guess it began to gnaw on him. He taunted Chuck about the U.S. in Vietnam. Chuck explained we were Peace Corps. Peace Corps. Get it? The man knew only, or mainly, that our government had aligned itself with Pakistan’s. Yahya and Nixon! he riposted. Ho Chi Minh!

I was too young to vote, Chuck complained.

The guard didn’t take that well. It couldn’t have been the words. It must have been the tone, the body language. Chuck was solidly built but short like me. The guard stood tall, with a plus-up from his turban. His chest inflated. Even his beard seemed to puff out. Before he said or did something we’d all regret, an alert cabbie rushed Chuck and me to his taxi. The station he drove us to wasn’t like Lahore’s. Having been built before Partition as one more stop along the way, this one had never aspired to grandeur. By the looks of our fellow travelers, there was no need for a reassessment. Grandeur evoked empire, and those days were gone.

 

Watch for thieves, we were told. They’ll steal your pack while you sleep. Even if you have it next to you, under you, or tied to your person, they can empty it without waking a soul. And at that moment, when the knives are out, you don’t want to wake up.

Our so-called express reached Delhi at dusk, preempting any nocturnal shenanigans. Besides, wouldn’t thieves target first class? I mean, wasn’t that where the money was? Having had enough of second class on the way to Lahore, we opted for the wooden benches of third class with the idea of meeting young travelers, female type, who could have boarded from ashrams, yoga schools, or whatever tourist destinations lay in our path. That didn’t pan out any more than it did on second class. We needed a rethink.

So in Delhi we elevated our game: first-class tickets for the sleeper to Calcutta. Four to a compartment, the clerk assured us. Four berths – he raised his hand, thumb clasped, fingers spread – four passengers.

We’d seen plenty of young foreigners in Delhi, their clothing loose and languorous. We’d first seen them in Afghanistan, moving east, we now remembered, in public buses and Volkswagen vans. Alas, everyone at our hostel was headed north or south. We tried a vegetarian cafe off Connaught Circle. Two eastward-bound West Germans at a table with extra chairs spoke dreamily of Benares and the Taj Mahal.

We mentioned Calcutta. 

The Ganges, they countered, the ghats. The most beautiful building in the world, floats in the moonlight, the story behind it. We could get off with them there, share a taxi, hang out, leave for Calcutta when and if we wanted.

They were attractive and knew it, one lissome, one healthy like a farm girl. Right age, right height.

Too much country, I explained. It made my heart ache. Too little time.

Calcutta? they asked. The farm girl looked good in black and red, her friend even better in white. They shared a pack of 555 cigarettes, a brand popular in Afghanistan.

Jumping-off point, I explained.

Is there a beach?

Chuck asked for a light. He had been busy with his bidi.

The lissome one extended her cigarette. She had long, blond hair that must have been hard to keep clean. Her jewelry could have been Afghan but to me it was generic Silk Road.

Chuck steadied her hand.

Smoke swirled. Eyes widened. That was no ordinary bidi.

The other German raised her wrist and tapped it where a watch would go. Her hair was curly and brown, and when she inhaled on the cigarette her lips released a faint pop. The lissome one nodded, though you could tell she was having second thoughts. Aussies were taking them to a fort, she explained. Some big, red fort.

 

The clerk who filled out our seat reservation forms only smiled when asked if he’d done this recently for any Western women. Carbon smudged his fingers, and his glasses were even thicker than mine. We hadn’t run into much paperwork in Afghanistan. Clearly, Indian railways meant business.

And their carriages were built to last. The cushions and curlicues in ours captured motes and spores that made it, to our surprise, mustier than third class. What first class really bought was space and separation from the masses. As promised, the benches in our compartment converted into four berths, two upper, two lower. It was a sanctuary on wheels. Through a window open for lack of air conditioning we scouted for pilgrims to share it with.

The evening was sultry, the monsoon overdue. It’s overdue every year, a jolly chap who took a seat next to Chuck said with a laugh. A retired, bespectacled doctor, his cheeks glistened with perspiration, and he patted his brow with a handkerchief.

The train lurched, backward and then forward, only a few minutes late. Movement stabilized us as it did a bicycle. A man going our way on one waved, with a wobble. Dust blew through the window. Scents came with it – spice, grease, and charcoal in the stations, plants, animals, and soil in the countryside. Everywhere the smell of the tracks, the ties, the carriages, and the locomotive that pulled them.

What entered through the doorway affected us more – rumpled men in ones and twos, a woman in a sari with two toddlers and an infant. Bags, sacks, shawls, samosas, mangos, thermoses, a soccer ball in a net. Young men, thin men, an elderly couple still in love. There must be some mistake. Very politely, Peace Corps style, Chuck and I asked to see their tickets. That led to smiles, shrugs, brush-offs, sneers, and confusion both feigned and sincere. Many of the new arrivals may not have spoken English. Certainly that had been the case third class to Delhi, second class to Lahore, and our companions didn’t look the sort to spring for first class. The conductor made himself scarce, and the doctor, having gone to Delhi to visit his son, left before midnight.

Chuck and I each staked out an upper bunk, with our packs up as barriers in a failed attempt to discourage climbers. Not only did the gatecrashers press into every compartment (we checked), they sat, squatted, knelt, leaned, lay, slept, stood, ate, drank, and chatted in the corridor. Food vendors gave up walking coach to coach. They touted their treats from between the cars and from station platforms. A man on the berth below Chuck offered mangos all around. So sweet, and unavailable in Afghanistan, but such a mess to eat. Their aroma infused the compartment. End of the season, the doctor said before leaving. He left too soon: Chuck wasn’t feeling so good. Could be worse, I told him. It could be durians. There was a long wait for the bathroom, and it wasn’t pretty when your turn finally came. Anywhere you put your foot down required an apology.  

According to our doctor friend, the influx had to do with the situation in East Pakistan. From the little we knew, and in Afghanistan we didn’t hear much, Chuck and I had expected the flow to go in the other direction – away from the violence and the devastation of last year’s cyclone. But their homes were there, or relatives were, or they no longer felt safe in West Pakistan. Maybe they intended only to get close.

Train and rain converged in Calcutta. We stuck our hands and then our faces out the window. Let it pour. Smell it, splash it! It might be messy, like a mango, but it sure broke the heat. By that time all of us, Chuck included, were feeling better. At Howrah Station the throngs, the stuff they had with them, the engines huffing and puffing, the vendors, beggars, porters, carts, crashes, newsboys, shills, the storm, and the vehicles come to take the arrivals away combined, catalytically, into one gigantic roar. India had transformed the old imperial grandeur into its own.

* * *

With East Pakistan problematic and the Burmese border closed to foreigners, we’d have to fly to go farther. Thailand’s not India, the airline agent noted; we’d never get in looking like that. She made us cut our hair in the bathroom before she issued the tickets. From Bangkok we caught a sleeper – curtains but no compartments, a berth for every passenger – to the Lao border, the end of the line. Its capital, like Peshawar, was a study in contrasts – sleepy even as it bustled with spillover from the upcountry war. I’d seen Laos from the other side, felt the cool breeze from off its slopes. I’d never crossed over, though. The country seemed special, one of a kind. Indeed, it was. Chuck and I almost stayed, for different reasons. Ultimately we didn’t, again for different reasons. Novelty had its attractions. But like the travelers on the train to Calcutta, we could not deny the urge to return. You look for one thing, you find another. Finally we were getting somewhere.

 

BioJust after completing his Peace Corps service, Frank Light met his future wife on the head of the Buddha the Taliban would later destroy. He is now writing his way through retirement. "Off Track and On" is a sidebar to an unpublished memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. His writings have been or are scheduled to be published in Even the Smallest Crab Has Teeth (a Peace Corps anthology), Make literary magazine, War, Literature and the Arts, the James Dickey Review, Mosaic Art & Literary Journal, Beetroot, The Report, and Consequence Magazine.