A jeep ride in India is never uneventful and the one I took from Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri Station was no different. Our driver had frequent fits of road rage and was severely impatient, not just with other drivers but also with us passengers and was constantly shouting at someone. As a result none of the passengers spoke during the 3 hour journey. As with taxis in South Africa, the drivers also think that there is always space for another passenger and soon we were 15 people crammed inside the jeep, plus one on the roof.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, a cat leaped out and ran across the road. Everyone in the jeep gasped. The driver slammed on the brakes, quickly made the sign of a cross over the steering wheel and spat out the window. Bad omen neutralized. Everyone sighed and then we were off again.
The train to Calcutta was nothing like the Radjhani Express (that I took from Delhi to Darjeeling) and I knew immediately what Shallu was trying to shield me from by insisting that I take a 2nd class ticket. This lowest-class coach felt more like a cage than a sleeping cabin and we were 8 people sharing. It was impossible to stretch without touching someone else. This was more what I expected the first time I got on a train in India and I heard a little voice saying ‘be careful what you wish for’. But I wasn’t complaining, it was a very cheap ticket and that was all that mattered. Travelling on this train would also be another window into the India I still wanted to see. So many times, on the Yamaha, I’d seen trains with hundreds of people hanging out of doors and windows smiling and waving and I knew that I wanted to ride that train too, so to speak.
On the train, opposite me, was a Bengali man who started wagging his head at me the moment the train started moving and kept offering me his only bottle of water (a precious commodity on such a long journey). I declined but he was determined to give me something, anything so he insisted that I share his meal with him. Refusing would be pointless. I’d been in situations like this before and I knew that we would not be ‘sharing’ anything. I would be eating while he would refuse to eat and would offer me ‘one more’, ‘one more’ until I had finished his entire meal. But he would be insulted if I refused.
It was very awkward bite I pleaded with him to start eating too but he shook his head while beaming at me. Single servings in India are more than enough for 2 people and soon I was stuffed and couldn’t take another bite. I thanked him and firmly said ‘enough’. He looked like disappointed searched in his small bag for something. He gave me his small bottle of milk and insisted I drink it there and then. It was not milk but spiced buttermilk (imagine a salty lassi with some masala mixed into it). I did not like it but managed to smile and he was delighted that I had eaten almost all of his food and drank his buttermilk. Then he tried again to offer me his bottle of water and wanted to go and buy some chai for me. ’No no no no, thank you, stop!’ I almost yelled but he was still looking around for something more to give me when a woman dressed in a blue sari came up to us asking for money. Then she spoke and I realized that she was a man. My host’s eyes suddenly sparkled. He took out two 10 rupee notes and gave it to the guy in the blue sari who took the money and then put his hand on my host’s head. A blessing. Then he put his hand on my head and then I understood. Luckily I had read ‘the City of Joy’ by Dominique LaPierre* in Darjeeling and knew that this man in the blue sari was not a transvestite but a Eunuch. How to explain.. If Caster Semenya were born in India she would have been a Eunuch.
Eunuchs are believed to be able to take away your sins and transfer it onto themselves (in an attempt to improve their own rotten Karma) and my host was overjoyed that he was able to bless me one last time, with a blessing.
The night on the train was hot and uncomfortable but as the sun was rising, before everyone woke; I got up, hung out the side of the train and saw Calcutta come alive. This city already existed, vividly, in my imagination and I my heart was beating wildly as the train pulled into the station. I knew that Calcutta was a dog-eat-dog kind of place and the moment I got onto the platform I would be bombarded by beggars, porters and taxi-drivers. I always expect to be ripped-off in a new place (it’s like paying an entry-fee) before I get wise in the ways of that particular place.
On the platform, I noticed two other foreigners looking around aimlessly but instinctively decided not to join them. Making peace with getting ripped-off on the first day is one thing but if you look like you don’t even know where you are the sharks will come for you. Walking with as much intent as I could, I put my bag down outside the station and within seconds a taxi driver asked me where I was going. I told him the name of the street. He smiled and said ‘come’. A taxi was my only options as that time of the morning there are no rickshaws on the roads. Taxi drivers capitalize on this shamelessly. If I had to pay for a taxi I would bloody well enjoy every expensive kilometer of the ride. Moments later I was on the backseat of a white Ambassador making myself comfortable. I’d seen thousands of these statuesque cars and now I was riding in one through the streets of Calcutta. The city was just waking up and I settled into the expectation of a proper ride through these notorious streets.
Less than two minutes later the driver of the Ambassador stopped, said we had arrived at the given address and demanded payment of 280 rupees. We had literally just gone around the block. It was a total rip-off but I didn’t argue, I expected to be taken for a ride, I just thought it would be a longer ride. Hello Calcutta
*I don’t mean to sound like Oprah but read it, read it, READ IT!