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A Train Story

train frame, originally uploaded by Rajesh Barua.

The rattletrap train blunders along on its jagged trajectory north. My travel companion and I case the car for seats that will allow us more breathing space than the usual cheek-to-jowl proximity that most Indian travelers are accustomed to. We finally spot an empty row in the second-class car. No sooner are we settled and congratulating ourselves on avoiding the throng than a young Indian man dressed in Western attire and carrying a large suitcase and small briefcase installs himself in the row of seats across from us. I had noticed him on the platform when the train arrived. Was it just my imagination, or did he seem to be shadowing us? Assuming that we spoke disparate mother tongues, I merely nod at him and pull out a book to read. To my surprise he speaks to us in a broad Brooklyn accent.

“Headed to McLeod Ganj?” he asks congenially.

“Yes,” my friend D acknowledges in his lilting Lincolnshire accent. “We want to see that Dolly Lama chap.”

“How about you?” I ask the man.

“I’ve come on a fool’s errand,” he replies with a heavy sigh. “I’m going to try to convince my mother-in-law to come back to New York with me.”

His suitcase is full of gifts for her, he says. He is the son of southern Indian parents who immigrated to the United States before he was born. Recently he married an Indian- American woman whose parents were also immigrants. After his father-in-law’s death, his mother-in-law returned to live in India. I congratulate him on the union. He shrugs.

“You’d think my parents would be happy that I married within the culture, but they’re not. They refused to come to our wedding because we’re Hindu and my mother-in-law is Buddhist. They wouldn’t speak to me for a few months.”

“But they do now?” I ask.

“I don’t hold it against them, but enough is enough,” he says decisively. “I finally called them and told them they had to accept my wife. Don’t get me wrong: I love my parents. But they’re ignorant. They can’t help it; they come from an ignorant culture. So I have to talk to them like they’re children. My mother-in-law’s the same. She’s got cancer eating her alive, but she won’t listen to reason. She wants to stay here. I’ve brought her a plane ticket, but I told my wife not to get her hopes up.”

D and I exchange furtive glances. We’re both slightly taken aback by the young man’s bold assertions and unapologetic cultural biases. Yet there is neither rancor nor judgment in his voice. He states his case clearly, without emotion or attachment. I begin to think he understands something I don’t. I suspect that I may be the one levying judgment and projecting cultural bias.

“I saw you guys on the platform,” he goes on in the same decisive manner. “I hope you don’t mind, but I followed you. I could tell by your backpacks that you were Westerners and probably spoke at least some English. It gets lonely on these trains when you can’t communicate with anyone in your own language.”

I assume he means both of his native languages, since few people in the north speak Tamil.

“Oh no, I don’t speak Tamil! My parents raised me to be an American. They wanted me to speak English. But they still expected me to marry a southern Indian girl of their religion. Like I said, they’re ignorant.”

The train continues to careen its way north. Our new companion pulls out potato chips and several small bottles of Coke from his briefcase and offers them to us.

“It’s hard to find any decent American snack food around here, so I made sure I had enough to last all week,” he says, snapping the chip bag open with a satisfied grin.

I ask him if he has plans to see more of the country after he visits his mother-in-law.

“Oh dear me no,” he laughs, shaking his head. “I’m on the first plane home whether she comes with me or not. One week in this country is long enough.”

The train lurches to a stop at a forlorn, unmanned station. We have become accustomed to such arbitrary, unannounced stops and sit back to enjoy our Cokes and chips with our new friend. There is a clanging sound of doors opening and a tittering in the aisles as newcomers come aboard. I crane my neck around like a rubbernecking tourist to catch a glimpse of them. They have entered our car now: tall, grim-looking men wearing apparel that is somewhere between a police uniform and military garb. Both wear the Sikh’s turban. Two sets of cold, steely eyes rotate in an unhurried, yet scrupulous scrutiny from aisle to aisle and seat to seat.

“Border patrol?” I whisper to the Brooklyn man.

“Who can tell?” he shrugs. His face betrays no sign of concern.

At last the guards stand in front of our seats. I feel a sudden tight tension in my stomach and murmur to D that we may be in trouble. They speak roughly to our new companion in Punjabi. He smiles at them calmly.

“Sorry fellows,” he says politely. “I’m an American. I don’t speak your language.”

The taller of the henchmen now turns to D and me with a cold stare. He waves a hand and speaks his incomprehensible language.

“Passports,” he says finally, only slightly more comprehensively.

We hand them over. Mine is American, D’s is British. Our inquisitor hands them back dismissively, as though bored with the formality.

The taller of the two turns abruptly to our New York friend, who silently hands over his blue American passport. The guard flips through it slowly before finally returning it. Next he points to my battered blue pack, which is standing up on end next to my seat. I begin to heave it off the floor, but the guard shakes his head and points to the Brooklyn man. Our friend rises without haste and steps across the aisle, whereupon he struggles to dislodge the heavy black suitcase from an overhead luggage rack.

He heaves the case across the row of seats and unzips it. He smiles at the turbaned men graciously, as though pleased to be doing them a favor. The shorter man approaches and rifles through the bag, leaving no shirt, trinket, food item, or bar of soap unturned. After going through the bag they continue to loiter and stare at our friend, as though waiting for something. Finally, as the young man commences to reorganize his possessions and zip up his case, the armed men vanish abruptly, like fearsome genies suddenly vaporizing into a bottle.

“How awful!” I exclaim.

I expect the young Indian to launch into an impassioned tirade, but he merely smiles at me with patient compassion.

“Oh that. You get used to it. No big deal.”

“But why did they give you such a hard time particularly?” D asks, mystified.

“Because of the color of my skin and the fact that I’m carrying a suitcase. You guys are white and obviously backpackers,” he says, pointing to our frayed packs. “No offense, but I have a good job. When I travel I carry a suitcase. They can’t figure me out because I’m not one of them, but I’m not one of you either. They think I’m either a terrorist with a bomb or a rich guy who’ll offer them a fat bribe. The thing is, you’ve got to go along with their game and let them think they’re boss. Once you show them you aren’t going to be disrespectful but you won’t be bullied either, they’ll leave you alone. That’s the way it works here.”

As the train wends its way toward Dharmsala, the three of us grow silent. D and I are still shaken by the experience, but our American friend appears utterly relaxed and unaffected by our interlude with the armed men.

When the train arrives at the stop before ours, he stands up and once again wrestles his suitcase from the clutches of the overhead rack.

“Good luck,” he tells us. “And remember: keep a sense of humor. You’re going to need it in this backward country.”

We watch through our window as he crosses the tracks, loaded down by his heavy case. The area where he has disembarked is rural, and no houses can be seen in the immediate vicinity. Several shack-like dwellings are perched high on a hill above the station, like wayward refugees in need of rescue. He crosses a small footbridge, dragging the unwieldy case uneasily behind him. When he pauses for a brief moment and peers over the rail, I wonder if he’s contemplating hurling the dead weight into the stream below. But no: the weight of the bag seems to represent the last encumbrance of an unwanted cultural identity he eschewed years before. Ultimately it is an inseparable and inescapable part of himself. So he soldiers on, pulling it behind him.

The train begins to roll slowly out of the station. I watch from the window until he vanishes from sight.