Platform 4 – Calcutta, India
I shift my weight from side to side as the numbness creeps up my legs and into my butt once again,
slight relief as blood starts to flow again to the right places. I decide to stand for awhile because I’ve been sitting on the hard cement for too long and lost count of how many times I’ve nearly been and have been stood on. “Where the hell is the train?” I mutter to no one, yet to everyone. I cannot count the number of people around me, everywhere I turn I see people.
Platform 4, Howrah Station, is buzzing and I mean buzzing – the sound is deafening, feet upon cement, people yelling to each other, some to themselves, a few are singing. It’s well past midnight and my 10 p.m. train is nowhere to be seen, empty tracks where my train should have been sitting a long while ago and I assume that it won’t be showing up for a while yet as I watch people jump off the platform and shortcut it across to the other side of the station, dodging the kids that have started a quick game of cricket between the rails, much to the horror of their families who seem to be hurling obscenities at them from the platform above – then again they could be cheering them on as a little one belts the ball for an easy six as my grasp of Hindi is pretty much non existent. The kids play on.
A barely audible voice crackles from a speaker somewhere above, “The something arother express to Puri will depart from platform 4 at…”, “At when?”, I say to the heavens above, looking up ward and half expecting a reply. I ask a passer by, “did you hear the time?” no response as he continues on his way and I soon loose sight of him as he is absorbed by the crowd. The voice is barely audible and there’s more crackle coming from the speaker than an oven-roasted pig.
I fish my train ticket out of my pocket and look at it once again, 10 p.m. departure from Howrah to Puri, 3 tier, aircon, on the something arother express – I cant even read the name, let alone pronounce it. I put the ticket back in my pocket and wonder if it will ever see the conductor’s hands, fulfilling its purpose in this life.
Crackles fires up again-“The something arother express to Puri will depart from platform 4 at…”, “Damn!”, I spit out loud, dancing side to side while looking yet again to the heavens above, much to the amusement of a few passing by. “Crazy tourist” I can almost hear them think. I look at my watch and midnight is a distant memory as 1 a.m. approaches from the left. The platform hasn’t thinned out at all as I turn in a full circle surveying all around me and play a little game with myself, trying to name every colour I see on peoples clothing and I soon give up because my brain cannot process the colours quick enough. I sit back down on the cement, knees under my chin, hoping not to be stood on this time round. A ball goes high in the air and lands somewhere in the throng, another six at the Howrah Cricket Ground and I wonder if the outfield will ever find the ball again.
Crackles comes to life, “The something arother express to Purri will depart from platform 4 at…”, I groan and scratch the back of my head aimlessly, not because of an itch but because my brain is starting to hurt.
A wicker broom appears from the mass of legs and proceeds to sweep a pile of dirt and discarded papers all over me and the broom operator doesn’t seem to notice or care about my cries of protest and disappears as quickly as he appeared. I stand yet again, brushing dirt from my pants and looking down the line into darkness hoping to see my train, any train for that matter.
Platform 4 is still thick with people; sounds and smells still abound; yet everything seems to be coming at a much slower pace. I’m not sure if it’s me or if the chaos is starting to bed down for the night due to the late hour. I spot an official looking gentleman appear from a doorway, I conclude he is official since he’s carrying a clipboard and like me, he too is surveying the empty line. The look on his face tells me he as well is hoping a train will appear out of no where, right here, right now, as he goes back to reading his clipboard.
I make my way over to where he stands, in front of the doorway, and steal a quick look inside before I interrupt his concentration. Inside sits a lonely old desk, some loose papers and a few scattered chairs, “The something arother express to Puri will depart from platform 4 at…”, I poke my head right inside the room, “Crackles, is that you?” , I say to the empty room hoping to see the source of the voice so I can ask when, when is the train coming. Nothing. I turn back around and the official looking gentleman has stopped looking at his clipboard and is now looking at me, like one would look at a crazy person. I smile as best I can trying not to look embarrassed after being caught snooping in his office and talking to the thin air.
“Namaste”, I say, hands prayer like as I raise them to my forehead and lower them again. His face seems unchanged. “Could you please tell me what time the train to Puri will come” I ask in my most undesperate voice as I take a quick glance at my watch and register that the time is pushing half one. “Soon,” is the quick sharp reply and before I can ask how soon is soon the official brushes past me, clipboard swinging by his side and he is gone, back into his office the door slamming shut behind him. I am tempted to bang on his door but refrain, considering he thinks I am a little loopy already.
I make my way back to my spot on platform 4, dodging the much slower masses and notice stumps has been called on the cricket game, half the team are asleep, huddled in a group at the edge of platform 4.
I flip my backpack over, soft side up, and lay on my back, not very comfortable and stare off into space above. I’ve given up worrying about being stood on, I am tired and starting to feel a little enraged. I close my eyes and focus on random voices, Hindi in lots of different pitches and tones and I find myself trying to guess what’s being said. I have no idea so I start to make up my own narrative. I start to get into my internal Hindi translation game only to be interrupted by… “The something arother express to Puri will depart from platform 4 at…”, “I hate you crackles,” I think to myself while shifting my weight back so I don’t slide off my pack.
I feel the buzzing around me get quicker again and the chatter turns up a notch. A new sound appears, growing louder with time. I open my eyes and sit up; a yellow light illuminates the empty track in front of me. I look over my shoulder and blink a few times. “Is this real or have I fallen asleep?”, I say to myself.
The front end of a train struggles past me followed by a line of grey carriages, kicking up the dust the cleaner missed and sending the remaining papers off dancing in the sky. A quick check of my watch and it’s bang on two a.m. The train grinds to a halt and the squeal of the brake jolts me into being fully awake.
I stand and lift my pack onto my back and head off in search of my carriage. I slide past the general class carriages, trying to avoid the chaos as people, kids, luggage and livestock all mosh around the all too narrow door trying to get in all at once.
I finally make it to the air con carriages and survey the passenger lists that are pasted on each carriage; two carriages on I locate my name and relief washes over me as I climb on board. I make my way down the passage grey/green bunk beds on either side and locate my bunk. I’m thankful I requested the top bunk, although there is little headroom to sit upright, I am happy because I just want to stretch out and sleep.
I feel a little sorry for the middle and bottom bunk owners who are sitting quietly, looking tired and worn out, watching me stow my pack under their seat. They give me a little nod, a silent hello, which I return, as one closes his eyes and the other gazes out the barred window at platform 4, now very quiet and still except for the chai and coffee sellers making there way along the platform selling their wares.
I climb the steps and stretch out on my bunk, the whir of an ancient looking metal fan a few inches from my head doesn’t bother me, I am too tired to care. The carriage is fairly quiet, a few people chat, children laugh a little further down. My bunk starts to move and I realise I am on my way, now quite happy and content on my bunk. I close my eyes, yet still sense the lights from outside as the train gathers momentum. The rocking has always put me to sleep. I am almost asleep when I feel a tapping on my foot. I open my eyes and sit up as much as I can without cracking my head on the roof above. My eyes adjust to the brightness of the carriage and I almost laugh out loud when I focus on who was doing the tapping.
The official looking gentleman carrying the clipboard is looking at me with the same look of concern as before, only this time he looks a little more worried when he realises I am looming from above and could quite easily pull a WWF move on him if I wanted to. He steps a little back, bringing the whirring fan between him and me and gingerly asks for my ticket. I pull out my ticket and hand it down to him, he checks it and checks his clipboard, passes it back to me and proceeds to check the passengers bellow me.
I watch him from above as he goes through the same motions with them; satisfied he turns and starts to make his way to the next set off bunks. “Excuse me,” I say a little to loudly and notice all the passengers within ear shot and view have their eyes upon me. “Could you please tell me what time the train will arrive at Puri?” I say. The conductor looks at his clipboard and then looks square at me, “Soon!” he says, “soon”, and turns on his heels to check the next lot of passengers. I laugh and a smile washes over me taking with it the past hours of uncertainty as I lay back down on my bunk and let the rocking of the train take me off into sleep and off into Puri.