No trip to India is complete without a train journey. The biggest employer in the world, with more than a million employees, and a long history.
We took a trip to Chandigarh and back by train, then had a night in Delhi before we prepared for the big one, a trip to Mumbai. It would take 18-20 hours, so we got a second class sleeper. There are three classes of travel on trains, and third class has bars on the windows. We weren't that keen on slumming.
The train was scheduled to leave at 7pm. At 9pm we moved off. We found our beds – which weren't together – and settled in. Chopper had a spare bed in his booth so I shifted there temporarily. The train wasn't express – it was picking people up along the way. During dinner I asked our attendant if we could make the move permanent, and he agreed to ask the arriving passenger if he's agree to a swap.
Each booth had six beds, in three sets of bunks in a U shape: two facing each other, and one more running parallel with the passageway along the opposite side of the train. In addition to the two of us, three other young blokes were in our booth. One of them, Sanjiv, spoke English very well. And, it turned out, very often. He was a gymnast, on his way home having just attended a training camp.
The other two blokes in our booth were wrestlers, one of them (who we called the Nugget) was clearly in a heavier weight class than the other bloke. They didn't speak much English at all (especially the Nugget, but I suspect he didn't speak much at all: he didn't need to).
Soon we saw why they were sitting with us. They were all employees of Indian Railways, and as such had free trips to wherever they wanted to go, but didn't have a seat or bed. Sanjiv's stop was at about 3:30am, so he decided to get some sleep early (behind a curtain in one of the bunks ... at least I think he was getting some sleep), while the other blokes decided it was time for dinner.
They were well prepared. A neat little segmented thermos contained rice, dahl, curry, and pickle. They also had some excellent naan bread, and a few date cakes for desert, which they very kindly offered to us. After they ate, Sanjiv awoke, and started talking to us. In the meantime, the wrestlers had opened the crowning glory of their dinner, a bottle of whisky. Pointedly, they didn't worry about offering us any of the hooch.
We didn't mind - we were talking with Sanjiv, mainly about his sport and his hopes of appearing in front of his home crowd in the 2010 Commonwealth Games (in Delhi). But the wrestlers were quietly getting quite legless. They weren't being rowdy or annoying. Just as well: if they had been there wasn't much we could've done about it.
During this time we were served an excellent meal courtesy of Indian Rail. Another one. The meals to and from Chandigarh had also been superb: dahl, curry, rice, naan bread, pickle, fresh chilli, cucumber, a mini samosa, fairy-floss-like sugar cake or some sort, and to top it off, natural yoghurt served in a clay pot. Brilliant.
This time, while the food was good, the bloke that served us was hilarious. He was utterly off-his-face drunk. He was swaying all over the place, and wasn't making any sense to any of us. He took a swig of the wrestlers' whisky. With the inside knowledge of Sanjiv, we found out that these blokes work about 18-20 hours a day for about Rs400 (A$13). When they get a rest between serving food, chai, and anything else, they nip down the back to their quarters and drink themselves stupid. This bloke had obviously had a lot of time off during the day.
After dinner and chai we stopped at a town somewhere along the way and, much to the despair of the wrestlers, the real occupants of the beds in our booth showed up. They were clearly very tired and quickly set up their beds and headed off to sleep. I have to admit that both Chop and I had a little giggle about that.
It didn't seem to worry our nuggety friend and his smiling, not-so-nuggety-but-still-quite-intimidating mate. They had finished their bottle of whisky and tucked in to a second bottle. Still not offering us any (to be fair there was barely a litre and a half between the two of them), they kept swigging their hooch. They were settling in for the night, even though they had nowhere to sleep.
It was getting late – about 11:00 – but it was quite hot still in the train, so Sanjiv, Chop and I decided to head to the end of the carriage, where the side doors were open and there was a good circulation of air. Sanjiv, after no more than 30 minutes sleep, had decided he's had enough until he needed to catch his connection in a few hours, so we chatted to each other for a while.
A couple of times while we were sitting there talking to Sanjiv, the wrestlers came up to him and spoke in Hindi. They were certainly feeling the effects of the alcohol. We didn't really know what they were saying, but whatever it was, Sanjiv wasn't agreeing to it.
A few other characters also stopped to chat to us. Again, we were the only white people I saw on the train, and there mustn't have been much else to do. Along with friendly passengers, our drunken waiter came by again to give us some more chai. Handling hot liquids is difficult at the best of times, but doing it on a rickety old train while totally legless is quite an achievement.
So, it turned out, was getting him to nick off. He was hanging around with a drunken grin all over his face. He chatted to Sanjiv for a while, and then came back to me and was calling me his brother, with generous Indian hospitality. Too generous it seemed. He was getting rather familiar, placing his hand on my leg. This has to be put into context though: we often saw Indian blokes walking down the street hand-in-hand in completely platonic affection. Nonetheless, my first reaction was not unlike an electric shock. But I managed to control myself enough to say "you look tired – I'll let you get on with your work. I'll see you later."
No movement (except some involuntary swaying).
"See you on your next round mate. Namaste"
In slow motion, his droopy, drunken eyes opened with joy.
"You speak Hindi!?!"
He was so smashed that his eyes didn't seem to open in unison. But he proceeded to reel off about a thousand syllables of Hindi before Sanjiv could stop him and say that, no, I didn't infact understand a f*cking word he'd just said. I was just being nice.
With that, he returned to his massive drunken grin, which seemed larger than his face, gave me a huge hug, and finally moved off to dispense chai and platonic affection elsewhere.
The wrestlers joined us again. This time they wanted to talk to us. Their English was pretty broken, but through their language barrier and the not-insignificant obstacle of two bottles of booze, they managed to beg us to give them our beds for a while. Sanjiv was translating a little bit for us. We said fine, no problems, and they swayed off to our booth for some drunken shuteye in "their" beds.
Then it dawned on us. How much is "a while" in Indian etiquette – have we just abandoned our beds for the night? Do they figure that we'll be able to sleep during the day while we finish our trip to Mumbai? What's the polite thing to do here? What options do we have against two world-class wrestlers?
We figured the very least we had to give them was an hour. That was fine – we could chat with Sanjiv, who had no plans to sleep until he got his connection. All the time we were chatting with Sanjiv, I think Chop and I were both thinking how the heck we were going to get these drunken, Olympic standard wrestlers out of our beds.
Tension grew, and I think it's fair to say that some of the sweat on Chop's brow was not entirely attributable to the temperature on the train. After an hour, still uncertain about the conditions under which we surrendered our beds, we looked at each other and with a sense of foreboding decided to try to wake them.
Tentatively we shook them awake from their sleep.
The bloke on my bed, Nugget, got up immediately and acquiesced and politely got up and thanked me for the precious hour of drunken sleep he'd had. His smiling friend was not so easy to rouse. He resisted at first, but soon Nugget sorted him out, reminding him that they'd only borrowed the beds. He awoke, very drowsy and very drunk, but was polite enough to thank Chop.
So finally we got some sleep. Without my watch on or an alarm being set, I wasn't sure what time it was in the morning as I was rolling over and going back to sleep. By the time I woke up I saw a family of six on the bench facing me in silence as I was stretching out on the bench all to myself. It was 9:15am. They'd probably been like that for at least three hours.
I think it's fair to say that the Indians have the wood over me when it comes to bed etiquette on trains.