The Night Train to Orissa by Jonathan Smulian

My First Train Journey in India

“The Director General of Urban Development for the State of Orissa has heard of our work in Jharkhand and would like you to come to Bhubanesar. He has set up a meeting for the day after tomorrow to discuss a number of projects,”said Arjun.

“I will go a day earlier. You take the night train. It is only a seven or eight-hour trip. Ram and Manu will put you on the 10 o’clock train at the Jamshedpur station.”

The next day I had problem with my US credit card changing dollars to rupees and was unable to withdraw any money from the ATM.

“Don’t worry,” said Arjun, “You won’t need money. We will buy the tickets. You will sleep on the train, and I will meet you at Bhubanesar at five-thirty in the morning.”

That night, in pouring rain, the two team members were late picking me up and rushed me to the station. After stepping carefully over and between families sleeping on the platform to shelter from the monsoon, we all boarded the train.

We found a man with his shoes off, wrapped in a blanket, squatting on the bunk which had been allocated to me. He refused to move, waved his ticket in the air, and loudly proclaimed his right to the bunk. Ram and Manu decided there had been a double booking and went off to find the conductor to sort out the situation. They did not return.

At ten o’clock sharp, the train, with a great release of steam, puffed slowly out of the station. It was pitch dark outside. There was no first class on this train. The windows, although streaked with rain, were filthy. The old second-class carriage smelled of sweat and curry. The bunks and blankets were unkempt, and the travelers strolled about in various stages of undress. Many had been traveling on the train from Mumbai for nearly a full day by the time I boarded.

Men, some old, some young, were stretched out on their bunks, and a woman with small children sat hunched up in a corner wrapped in a floral shawl. I could not guess how many other women and children were hidden behind drawn curtains in the bunks that ran parallel to the corridor joining the carriages. Reflecting the rhythmic drumming and clicking on the rails, a bare light bulb swung to and fro dimly lighting the rows of shabby bunks.

“Let me see your ticket,” demanded the barefooted man sitting on what I thought was my bunk. He put on his wire spectacles and peering closely at my ticket, proclaimed to all within earshot, “This is not your train. Your ticket is for the eleven o’clock. Call the conductor.”

Along came a portly little man in a uniform. “I am putting you off at the next station,” he announced. “You can’t travel on this train without a ticket.”

“Can’t I buy a ticket?” I asked.

“No, we don’t sell tickets on the train. You must get off,” he said curtly to me and to the crowd of men who had collected to hear the conductor’s decision.

“You can’t do that! This man is a visitor to India! Let him stay!” the passengers shouted in my defense, waving their fists in the air.

As the exchanges became more heated, the conductor became more officious, and the crowd became even more threatening, “If you throw him off, then we will throw you off the train as well!”

The conductor looked scared and ordered me, “Lie down on that other bunk.” He hurried away. I never saw him again.

The train chugged on through the night while I had visions of the fate of a lone, old white man wandering around with his briefcase at midnight at some unknown small town station in the middle of Jharkhand, a state known for lawlessness and reputedly rife with Maoist guerilla activity. It was now eleven-thirty. We neared the station where the conductor had threatened to force me to leave the train.

The man on “my” bunk was furious. “What sort of people are they that put an old man on the wrong train. Give me your cell phone and their number. I will call them.”

He proceeded to call Ram and Manu and to give them a good dressing down in both Hindi and English for their careless and unfriendly act. “Call yourself engineers? You are a disgrace to India,” he shouted into the phone.

Then a row of lights flashed by as we passed the station platform without stopping. I heaved a sigh of relief, and eventually the crowd dispersed and, with some grunts and the occasional snore, went to sleep on their bunks. Enough excitement for all for one night.

After another hour, as I tossed nervously about still fearful of the conductor’s verdict, a young uniformed man bent over me and whispered, “I am the conductor’s assistant. We can sell you a ticket.”

At that moment I realized to my horror and embarrassment that, thanks to the earlier ATM problem, I had very few rupees with me.

“I don’t have the money for my fare,” I confessed. He looked at me in disbelief

“But you must have U.S. dollars,” said the young man.” I will be back in half an hour.”

On his return he whispered, “I have found a man on the train who wants to visit his sister in Hoboken next year and will change your dollars.”

I gave him the dollars, wrapped myself in a threadbare blanket, and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. I did not see the conductor or his assistant again and never received a ticket. Apparently the deal had been concluded to everyone’s benefit. Early in the morning a very apologetic Arjun met me at the station in Bhubanesar. I was exhausted.

For a week neither Ram nor Manu could look me straight in the face. They recovered after some light teasing. And my next journey on Indian Railways was without incident. Thankfully.

BIO: Jonathan Smulian has worked in 26 countries and lived in 12 cities. He is retired architect and urban planner who now lives quietly with his wife and their dog under two large oak trees in Houston Tx.
He spends his time remembering his travel adventures, writing poems and essays, and has recently been published in the Ocotillo Review .