by Megan Lyles
Who can you trust when you’re traveling solo?
It was 4:20 a.m. when I heard the faint hum in the distance. The noise grew steadily from a barely perceptible hope to a shrieking racket, and then slowed to individual thunk-thunk-thunks as the train pulled into the station. When it had stopped completely, I unfolded myself from atop my backpack and stood. After six immobile hours, my knees creaked and blood rushed to my head until I almost sat back down. I shivered. Siliguri’s daytime heat had long since dissipated and I’d been huddled as much for warmth as for comfort. The family I’d camped near was silently rolling up mats and setting stunned and bleary children on their feet. I hobbled stiffly around them to the nearest train car, looking for the list that would be taped next to the door with my name and seat number. There was no list. I looked up the platform and back down. The line of dusty red cars seemed endless.
Then I heard Mickey’s voice behind me, annoyed. “Didn’t I tell you that you have to wait down there?” He pointed forcefully along the platform like someone scolding a puppy. “You have to learn to trust people when you’re in a foreign country and they’re honestly trying to help you!” It was too much. There were too many frustrated tears to hold them all safely inside. I tried to keep my face turned away from him, but he saw anyway.
“Why are you sobbing?” he asked. His voice, caught in transformation between annoyance and concern, turned high and shrill. “What’s wrong? What happened? Why are you sobbing?”
I wanted to answer him. I wanted to tell him exactly why I was crying and what he could go and do with his advice. But I didn’t trust myself not to break down completely, to heave and gasp and sob like a small child, spewing out snot and incoherent complaints. I couldn’t stop the tears from coming, but I could keep my mouth shut tight, wave him away, start walking in the direction he pointed, hoping to find my car, my seat, my ride out of Siliguri.
Mickey walked with me anyway, down the platform to a car that looked just like all the other cars, and he put me in the hands of another man in an MP uniform. I didn’t say goodbye as I climbed onto the train. The new MP led me to the ladies’ car and pointed at a narrow slice of seat next to the window. The ladies, a blur of jeweled bindis and brightly patterned saris stuffed into the tiny room, stared silently at me, their bright dark eyes roving over my long, black skirt and plain blue hoodie from the GAP. It was a story about the ladies’ car on Indian trains that had inspired me to come to India in the first place. A story about how sisterhood reaches across the culture gap, transcending differences and making the ladies’ car both a refuge from men and a connection to women. And now my sisters were staring at me as though I were an intruder. I stretched my hood down over my face and cried some more.
Siliguri is a way station. It lies at the foot of the Himalayas and serves as a stopover for those going to and from Darjeeling and the tea plantations below it. Like most towns of convenience, it’s not very nice. I had passed through it quickly on my journey from Calcutta up to Darjeeling, but on my way back down en route to Delhi I was stuck. There was no train leaving that day. I had to spend the night and the whole next day in Siliguri.
The monsoon had just barely moved south; it was off-season for tourists. I had met no other foreigners in the couple of weeks that I’d been in India, so I was happy when I met an English girl in Siliguri who was also traveling alone. We spent the afternoon wandering through the market and commenting on the heat, and we ate dinner together. I doubted we would have been friends under other circumstances, but I think she was as relieved to meet me as I was to meet her. I was lonely for someone who saw India as I did, as an outsider, someone who understood the pendulum between fear and elation that it was to navigate an almost total unknown.
We sat in a gazebo on the hotel grounds and she told me about the men who’d harassed her everywhere she went. “It’s just something that happens here when you have fair hair,” she said. She laughed lightly. “Don’t worry, you’ll be safe.” Her hair, which was oily and looked more brown than blonde, was scraped back into a thin, straggly ponytail. I doubted that her admirers had even noticed it. Her breasts on the other hand, were reasonably visible through her t-shirt. (“I refuse to wear a bra in this heat,” she claimed.)
My ethnic heritage, African- and Italian-American, has given me skin the color of delicious things – caramel, cappuccino, toasted almonds. I was the same color as most of the people around me, and my hair was dark, like theirs. Fair hair. I took offense on behalf of all of us. When the conversation began to stagger, I escaped the awkwardness by leaving for the train station early.
The hotel manager told me I should pay twenty rupees for a ride to the train station. The rickshaw man wanted one hundred. I talked him down to fifty, and we set off. He was a small man, and I cringed with guilt when he had to dismount from his bicycle and drag me up a hill on foot. And then he got lost. After a detour around a long line of traffic headed to a puja, or religious festival, he couldn’t find his way back to Hill Cart Road. With a sheepish apology, he pedaled me through residential side streets, silent and dark except for distant barking dogs and the occasional splash of yellow light and laughter from one of the small houses we passed. I felt the tiniest bit irritated. Siliguri is not a large town and Hill Cart Road is the biggest street in it, practically a highway. I sat silently, willing the ride to end. The only pleasant thing for me about sitting in a rickshaw was that finally no one was yelling at me, “Hey, rickshaw! Hello, rickshaw! Very good rickshaw!”
And then the ride did end. In a dark grove of trees off a side road, the rickshaw-wallah dismounted from his bike and came to face me. He pointed towards a light at the top of a small hill. “Train station,” he announced. I wondered why he didn’t just take me around to the front, but I wasn’t going to insist. I climbed down and prepared to grab my backpack.
“One hundred rupees,” he said.
“Fifty rupees,” I said. “We agreed.” It didn’t occur to me yet to be frightened. I was only annoyed that after all my writhing guilt for this poor, put-upon man, he was now trying to cheat me.
“One hundred rupees.”
“No. Fifty rupees.”
Then the rickshaw-wallah put a foot up onto the edge of the cart, blocking me from my backpack. He leaned towards me.
“I love you?” he said.
“What?” I squinted at him. What is he talking about? Never mind – I’m out of here, I thought. I reached past him and swung my pack up and over his little leg and out of the rickshaw. I held out six soft, damp ten-rupee notes to him, the amount I’d had scrunched and ready in my pocket. He wouldn’t take them. He was suddenly angry.
“One hundred rupees!” He said something about the puja that I couldn’t understand.
“You knew about the puja. The puja was not a surprise to you. We agreed on fifty rupees.” I offered him the money again. Again he refused it. Other people appeared out of the darkness. Three other cycle-rickshaw-wallahs came from one side and ranged their vehicles in a half-circle. Three men on foot came from the other direction, the direction of the light that I hoped was the train station. They were the only witnesses. Silently they watched.
I backed toward the light, holding out the money at the full extent of my arm. He didn’t move. Just as I was finally beginning to be afraid, he reached out and snatched the bills, and I passed out of the circle. I turned and half-ran up the hill and followed the wall around to the side that looked the brightest. No one tried to stop me.
I exhaled in relief when I saw the pulsing crowd of people and stepped into the yellow light spilling out of NJP Station. Inside, I picked my way around the individuals and families talking, shouting, eating, and sleeping as I tried to get to the information counter. A man wearing a khaki uniform intercepted me and asked me if I needed help. He wore a sash that read “MILITARY POLICE” in big white letters from his right shoulder to his left hip. His black moustache was as shiny as his shoes.
“I need the 10:50 train to Delhi,” I said.
“Yes, Platform 3B. I will take you there.”
I followed him through the crowd. “But the train is delayed,” he said. “It will be coming at 4:00 am.” It was 9:05 pm.
The policeman, Pramod, led me out onto a platform, up a flight of metal stairs to an overpass and down to platform 3B where, conveniently enough, his police booth was located. He commandeered a stool from a nearby chai stand and dragged it over for me to sit on. I sat reluctantly, suspecting that he would try to flirt with me but not knowing how to avoid it. At least he was a policeman. He insisted on buying me a coffee. I tried to refuse, but when the tiny glass was set in front of me anyway, I sipped at it. It gave me an excuse to limit my focus on the standard conversation – where are you from? How long have you been in India? Do you like it? Then he veered from the script. “Do you want to go walking to see the scenery?” Startled, I glanced around. Stray beams of cold white light cut through the darkness at odd angles, slanting across the platform and highlighting the drifts of dust, dirt, and bits of straw on the dark floor. A cockroach the size of a mouse scuttled past. Beyond the stripes of track and platform was blackness.
“No, that’s ok,” I said.
“Your train is delayed,” he told me again. “Why don’t you take a room to wait in?”
Not even certain that the train was truly delayed, I did not want to be away from the platform at 10:50. And so the conversation went on.
“Married or unmarried?” Pramod asked me.
“Married,” I lied.
“For how long married?”
“And where is your husband?”
I opened my mouth to say “America” but at the last minute I said “Delhi” instead.
“There is a waiting room,” Pramod said. “Do you want to wait there?” I agreed immediately, picturing rows of chairs where I could sit among other passengers and be left alone. He led me back up the stairs to the overpass. We walked over the other platforms, some bright and crowded, others dark and empty, and back down the stairs to the main entrance.
“Here is the waiting room.” He pointed up a flight of stairs to a closed door marked “Officers Only.”
I sighed. “You know, I think maybe I should wait on the platform after all.”
Then another man came along. Taller and thinner than Pramod, he wore an ordinary button-down shirt and slacks. He claimed to be an officer too. “I am above him,” he said, waving a hand airily in Pramod’s face. “I will take you into the waiting room.” Pramod looked sulky but did not protest.
“I’d really rather go back to the platform,” I said. So Pramod led me away. I didn’t know whether his scowl was meant for me or for his superior officer, but it made me nervous. The straps of my backpack dug into my sweaty shoulders as I climbed up to the overpass yet again. Suddenly he brightened. “If you have any problems,” he said, “just tell me, and I will solving.”
“Ok,” I agreed. I wiped sweat from my forehead with my long, modest sleeve.
He paused on the overpass and pointed down to Platform 6, which must not have been expecting a train, as it was unlighted and completely deserted.
“Do you want to go down there?” he invited.
“Isn’t my train coming to Platform 3?”
He frowned, but began walking to Platform 3 again. I followed, thinking resentfully that his chances with foreign girls might improve if he offered to carry their bags while he led them in circles around the train station.
Back at Platform 3B, I sat on my stool again. There was a small silence.
“Why don’t we take a walk,” Pramod suggested, as though we hadn’t just returned from a walk with results which were unsatisfying to us both. He nodded encouragingly. “We can see the scenery.”
“That’s okay, I’ll just wait here on Platform 3.”
“But your train is delayed.”
“That’s fine, I’ll just wait.”
I felt relief when the man from the waiting room, the officer who was “above” Pramod, came along and started talking to me.
“You can call me Mickey,” he said. “My Indian name is too hard for Westerners to pronounce.”
“What is it?”
I wondered what Westerners he had been speaking with, who couldn’t pronounce the name Mohan. But for the purpose of our conversation, the same conversation I had with everyone, it hardly mattered.
“Married or unmarried?” Mickey asked.
“I don’t believe you! You look like a school-going girl!”
“I’m twenty-four,” I said, which was true.
“Well then I must congratulate you on maintaining yourself.” That made me laugh, and I felt much better. Until he started telling me off-color jokes. Mild ones, of the sort a sixth grader might tell when the substitute teacher had her back turned, but inappropriate nonetheless. I glanced again up and down the platform. The waiting families had begun to quiet, crouched together, the children laid out on straw pallets or pages of newspaper. The MP stand was brightly lit, and my high stool kept me off the floor. “Do you get it?” Mickey prodded. I smiled thinly and stared at anything but him.
When someone called Mickey away, Pramod took his chance. He glanced around before leaning toward me, his teeth white and sharp looking, slick with spit. He whispered, “Sex… enjoy?”
I had no idea of how to respond. Should I show my annoyance and disgust, or would I be better off pretending I didn’t understand? At that moment Mickey returned, and suddenly he was once again the lesser of two evils. So when he invited me to walk further down the platform, closer to where my car would end up when my train finally arrived, I accepted.
“You know,” he said as we picked our way around the parcels and bodies scattered along the wide platform, “An Indian girl would not have sat there. I am just trying to help you out, and let you know.”
I stared at him. Was he kidding me? Wasn’t it enough that I refused to go “look at the scenery” with Pramod? What was I supposed to say? Sorry, I’d rather sit alone on the filthy platform than sit on a chair and talk to you? I’d thought I was being polite. Anyway, if sitting on a stool in a brightly-lit area, where everyone could see that I was just talking, meant I wasn’t a nice girl (my mind instantly translated “Indian girl” to “nice girl”), then what did that make the one who invited me to sit there? He should know what’s appropriate, even if I don’t. For crying out loud, these guys were supposed to be the police. Was Mickey going to have an edifying little chat with Pramod, too?
Mickey pointed to a box on the platform. “Sit there,” he told me. “I will bring you some chai, or coffee.” I walked away from him, kept walking, ignoring him calling after me about the chai. I found a dozing family of several adults and children and placed my backpack as close to them as I thought I could without actually joining their party, and sat down on it, faced away from Mickey and his chai. I pulled my hood over my head and rested my forehead on my knees and wrapped my arms around my legs. I made myself as inconspicuous, as invulnerable, as a stone.
It was not yet 11:00 pm. I knew I’d made a dozen mistakes over the course of the evening, but I didn’t have the luxury of learning from them because I didn’t know what I was supposed to have done instead. Perhaps I should have gone into the waiting room after all. Perhaps I should have introduced myself to some women, or a family. But there was one thing, I decided. Regardless of what country I was in, and what social mores it upheld, I did not have to speak to anyone I didn’t want to speak to. I had the right to be rude, if I chose. I waited there, slowly turning cold and numb, until the train pulled into the station and sighed to a halt at 4:20 in the morning.
That’s when Mickey found me again, and scolded me for not trusting him, and I cried in the Ladies’ Car, alone surrounded by staring women. I wished desperately that they would ask me what was wrong, teach me where to sit and whom to ignore, tell me what to say when someone made a crude proposition, or failing that, at least to stop staring at me so that I could recover my dignity in peace. I thought of the English girl and wished I could talk to her again. Maybe the unwanted attention she was getting had nothing to do with her hair, but maybe it had nothing to do with her clothes either. Maybe if I had overlooked the perceived insult, we would have realized that we had more in common than we thought.
Some time after the train started moving, a conductor came and got me and showed me to a bunk. It was an upper, which meant it would not become a communal seat during the day, and it was an end bunk, which meant there was no one across from me. I climbed up gratefully. Lying with my face to the wall and only the blue corridor light illuminating the car, I was as alone as I could be on a crowded, second-class Indian train.
It was a long ride to Delhi at the train’s slow, chugging pace. I lay in my bunk for most of the day and into the next night, only climbing down from time to time to buy food or chai at some of the stations, or to pee through a hole in the train’s floor onto tracks blurring past beneath me. On the way back to my bunk I stood in the open doorway at the end of the car, letting the hot, milky chai soothe my raw throat, the wide vista of green fields and brown ponds soothe my raw restlessness, and the hot wind dry the sweat at my hairline. Sometimes children waved, and I waved back. If my empty chai cup was clay instead of plastic, I threw it out the doorway to melt back into the earth.
At around 3 o’clock the next morning loud chatter and laughter seeped into my sleep, and a tugging at my skirt woke me completely. Half dozen or so teenage boys were hanging around the passageway near my bunk. They were not speaking English, but it was clear from their staring and gestures that they were discussing me, and that one of them had been the one to pull my skirt. I let my eyes close, but one of them yanked at my skirt again. It was as though they were daring each other to run up and touch me. I had no choice but to keep my gritty eyelids open to watch them. This stopped them from touching, but it did not stop the jeering laughter and talk. I glared at them with increasing anger. I began to hope one of them would dare approach me again. Touch me again and I will kick you right in the face, I thought, and I meant it. I really meant it, and I think they realized that.
I was relieved and, surprisingly, slightly disappointed when the train finally slowed at a darkened station and the boys forgot me and hopped off in noisy twos and threes. A few last shreds of their laughter floated in from the darkness and dissipated as the train speeded up again, leaving them behind and carrying me forward, just a few hours away from morning and Delhi.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.