Reflections on the overnight train

Udaipur Travel Blog

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Udaipur, India

May 23, 1993


I took an overnight train on my way down to Udaipur and out of the Rajasthan desert furnace. I was exhausted, and decided to ride first class to avoid the inevitable press and hassle, and I was rewarded with my first heart-to-heart talk with an Indian woman. Unless one hangs out among the Delhi and the Bombay professionals, or sticks to the finer hotels, there is little opportunity to mix with women unaccompanied by chaperones of one kind or another. The woman who would share my rail car was around my age. She introduced herself to me and said she was a school teacher, on her way to Udaipur for a conference the following day.


The train ride was long and hot and, even in our more comfortable cars, the dust made its way through the windows and doors to coat our clothes and set us coughing from time to time.

Monkeys claim Ahmed's car, outside a Jain temple
Initially, I figured it was going to be a long night. I’d gotten into the habit of dreading the moving, and had waited for a train for four hours--me being early by 2.5 and the train being delayed by one--didn’t add to my peace of mind this time around. I try to be philosophical in such situations, but stoicism comes much easier when the mind is less anesthetized by the numbing agent of an unparalleled boredom. Soticism and Buddhism are about concentration, meanwhile, I was vegged.


Then an agent shows up on the platform I had been restlessly prowling, and my name doesn’t seem to be on the reservation list. My imagination whiles away the nothing-to-think-about time with vague terrors of not having a seat for the 14 hour journey, or of the train departing without me, and my having to start the process of waiting and moving all over again the next day.


“Are you going to Udaipur?” she asks in perfectly accented, grammatical English.


“Yes.” I am somewhat surprised to be drawn out of my fret. No one else here seems to have had much English, nor been much help, although the circle of five farm boys with their curious prodding eyes have been undeterrable as they badger me for more than an hour, standing closer and closer to me, their faces taking up my entire field of vision, as if closer proximity would make up for the fact that I don’t understand their Hindi... they tire me, these Indian men. Never sure when honest curiosity spills over into sly insinuation. Always needing to be on my guard.


But this woman... about 26 probably... she has a round face and a pleasant wide mouth that’s given either to a simple smile or an “Oche!” clicking--a habitual, perhaps subconscious sound that peppers her conversation, like a Western “uh huh” or “hmn” or “oh”.


It turns out she will be traveling in my car, and she is pleased by the prospect. Not often out on their own when single, Indian women are bound to feel some trepidation, and she is reassured by the worldly bold way I am handling these boys, and is looking forward to using her English. She teaches the subject at a city school in Jodhpur.


Finally, after a month in India, the chance to get a woman’s perspective!


As the train starts us moving, my traveling companion asks me a few questions about where I am from, and the inevitable “are you married?”. I turn the question back at her after my reply: she will have an arranged “alliance.” For a while she contemplated moving to America. She would like to do a PhD, but teaching at a university means less mobility when it comes time for marriage, and she must go where her husband lives. I tell her of the book of Indian women’s short stories I’ve been reading. We talk about women in this country and she says there is progress.


“I can see the difference between my mother and my sister… my father and my brother in law.” “Women have careers now. Money equals independence.”


She agrees with my view that the higher rate of divorce in the West is not necessarily a sign of moral corruption. “Here, where there is little divorce, the women make the sacrifices. Always women sacrifice: and many are unhappy.”

She talks about her teaching and the pleasure she feels when children prefer her class. “They are often most happy when they know I will be their instructor.” Why do they prefer her class? She does not believe in beating students, for instance, when beating is still very much part of the Indian school system. And, "If sometimes it is hot, or they have had too much to do, and they request that we not work so hard for one class, sometimes I let the go. We go outside and do not work.”


She has an MA in literature... a kindred spirit. She asks about the West, about which following some letters from friends, she now has misgivings. “It is materialistic?”

I explain about the different communities--the artistic and intellectual community to which I claim a certain kinship seems less materialistic, but, yes, the focus is on money and on buying things. The comfort and the status that brings.

What of family? She is surprised by my ability to leave everything bwhind and just wander the globe, and looks at me with the same expression that she used when she asked about my ability to travel alone all over the world. “Are you not afraid sometimes?”


Yes, I am afraid sometimes, and sometimes I miss my family.


“So why do you keep doing this?”


The question opens up and the landscape passes... it is almost dawn now, we have been talking through the night. The steady rhythm of the train's wheels on the tracks makes me think about how far I’ve gone, and why I have no answer for her. The dust has been coming in all night. At one stop she got up to lock the doors to our carriage.  Her brother had warned that she should not let anyone join us. I told a man banging on the door at that stop, wanting into our car to go away, in my most authoritative Western English. He could have been anyone: a chai seller, the conductor, or a bandit.

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Okay (sheepish smile) I'll admit:

Figuring out this entry has been the hardest part of the difficult muddle that was my time in India
I met Ahmed in Bangkok, before I even got to India. It is unusual to see people from India on the backpacking route, and Ahmed was unusual in a number of ways. He was wearing a traditional  knee length coat-like shirt, like a Sherwani, but made of a very light, casual blue cotton, with matching pants. He was young and handsome (other than that thin moustasche all young Indian men seem set on growing), and he was travelling with an American woman in her mid fifties, who looked all the world like a school marm on an adventurous holiday.

We had all arrived in Bangkok on an early morning train from the south, and were mulling around the backpacking district waiting for the cheapest accommodations to open their doors to new arrivals. It would be a three hour wait (we arrived in the city at 5:30 a.m.), and so we got to talking.

I told Ahmed and his companion that I was heading for India and had cut off my time in Thailand because of pictures I had seen of one city in particular: I wanted to see Udaipur.

Surprise... it turned out that was where Ahmed lived, and he told me his father ran a guesthouse there.

When I come to his I must call him, and stay with his family as his personal guest.

It seems he had met the American woman when she stayed in his father's guesthouse, and she was the one who had talked him into tagging along on the next leg of her journey--to Napal and then Thailand.

No, he had never been outside India before, except to go on the hajj to Mecca.

As we went our separate ways, me heading to one hostel-type hotel, and them to another, Ahmed pressed his father's card into my hand, and I promised that I would look him up when I arrived in Udaipur.

What follows are some of my scattered thoughts about how I got to Udaipur, and my stay with Ahmed and his family just before I left India... please forgive any remaining incoherence... the experience, even in retrospect, was somewhat... um, surreal... :-)

Udaipur, India
Udaipur, India
Monkeys claim Ahmeds car, outside…
Monkeys claim Ahmed's car, outsid…
photo by: s_vivek62