Sunday, December 10, 2006

Lucknow Express

Click and clack. Clickety-clack. The Lucknow Express picks up speed, pulling out of New Delhi Station, leaving behind a snarl of traffic—human, vehicular, and animal—and heads into the still dark early morning.

There’s nothing to see but the white light of the car, the dark skins of the passengers, the packed overhead luggage bins, and the shiny linoleum floor. The door at the end of the car opens and a waiter comes in with the first offering of the six hour trip. He’ll be back … often.

I listen to an iPod and work a Sudoku puzzle while the woman next to me, a heavy jacket over her bright yellow sari, dozes. Her head lolls against the darkness beyond the window.

Dawn is approaching. The door opens, letting in the click and clack of metal wheels on rails, and the waiter is back. This time his cart carries thermos jugs of hot water to go with the tea bags he brought on the first trip. Letting my tea bag seep in the hot water, I turn my head toward the windows where light seeps above the horizon. Here, now, come the black shapes of water buffalo, the thatch roofs of granaries, the tall cone of a brick kiln.

Visual vignettes. A village comes close, and there is a boy on a roof with the giant red ball of a sun just topping the horizon behind him. Briefly, his arms frame it—an Apollo bearing the sun. Then, he stretches, losing his brief flirtation with the supernatural, and begins a routine of calisthenics.

I watch other Indians waking in their incredible numbers. With the dawn, they’re working, tilling fields, riding bullock carts, burning ditches.

Slowing, we pull into Ghanziabad, passing makeshift huts, new construction with unfinished walls and networks of pole scaffolding. Mazes of wire festoon the building fronts, witness to a national freebooting spirit, a help yourself attitude toward power distribution.

The train jerks to a stop. Was it here that the windows of our car were starred and pitted by hurled bricks and stone? Every car in the train is similarly battle scarred—train bashing seeming to be an important component of civil protest in India. Just the day before this trip the newspapers had featured photographs of burning “bogies,” part of a riot in one of the southern states. But what’s the story behind the injuries suffered by my bogie? Were there people like me inside, appearing as bodiless heads to the rioters on the platform. Today, thank God, all is peaceful.

The reminder of violence returns later as we pass an ambulance train sitting on a siding. The windowless cars, a flat shade of orange, stimulate more questions. How often is that special train needed? Did it clack along the tracks to the relief of the earthquake victims last year? It must take hours to get the staff together, to find an engine, to clear the tracks, to … .

One answer comes all too soon when I wake up the next morning to CNN reporting the collapse of an overpass onto a passing train. Thirty-two people died immediately, and many more suffering serious injuries were expected to succumb to them because … it took the hospital train twelve hours to reach them.

Death is common in India, a normal part of Hindu life and, if the person is fortunate, this death ends the chain of reincarnation. I see one such aspirant getting a head start on eternity, being carried toward the sacred waters of the Ganges. His body, wrapped in white, lies on a platform balanced on the heads of eight men. They reach the water and lower him into it. Then, we are past Kanpur and crossing a river along which the gods walked and where death is a business.

Outside, scenes blur. One bullock looks much like the next. The dogs of every town, tails in loose, high curves, scavenge through identical trash heaps. They also lie in roads, apparently mistaking their unprivileged lives for those of the sacred cows. The latter can and do claim roads as beds without fear, and the sight of kamikaze drivers braking to roll cautiously around a recumbent cow is so common, it is as interesting as wallpaper.

Upside down ditches—banks that delineate fields—make similar patchworks everywhere. Uttar Pradesh, the most northern of India’s provinces, snugging up under Nepal, is the breadbasket of the country. It is also the wealthiest province, as anyone from UP will tell you in a nano second.

Click and clack. The refined voice of the female announcer tells us that we are coming into Lucknow, the cultural heart of UP. I see a woman holding her baby boy with his naked butt hanging over the edge of the station platform, his little body obediently defecating onto the tracks … poddy training, Indian style.

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