Over Hill and Under Hill

I surprised myself the morning I left. I’d set my alarm for 5 am, but I was up ten minutes before that. I didn’t know then, but this was going become routine for the next few days. I ate a burger (bought the day before) and had a cup of coffee. I’d planned to take a taxi, but my dad insisted on driving me to the station. You know what? Let’s spice things up and call them what I actually call them. Translating into ‘dad’  and ‘father’ feels weird. What I call my parents is hardly without precedent in English: you’ve all read The Kite Runner. So, Baba and Ma drove me to Howrah Station.

The train was on platform 22. We drove into the wrong lane, and had to cycle back under the bridge with instructions from a few helpful policemen. Ma asked us to go ahead while she walked behind us. Baba and I found my coach, and I got in with the single bag I’d brought (I wanted to travel light, and it had wheels). I found my seat, next to an elderly lady and her son, who was there to see her off. Baba came up, and told me Ma hadn’t gotten on. Of course, I was going solo, but we were worried about where she might be. We tried calling her, but she didn’t pick up. Baba went to look for her.

The details are a little sketchy; I’ve confessed before that my memory is exceptionally weak. The matter is that Ma had gone into the next coach, and she called us: turns out we were in the wrong one. In a matter of minutes, I was settled in. My immediate neighbours would become a prominent part of my auditory life for the next two days. Three of them were travelling together: men in their thirties or forties, I think. Two of these men had seats next to mine, and one was opposite us. On the other side of the aisle was a couple with a toddler. The other person was a lady of indeterminate age – anywhere between her teens and her forties, though she looked young. She did the smart thing: soon after we’d left, she climbed up on the upper berth and disappeared. I didn’t see her get down till we arrived in Pune thirty hours later.

Needless to say, the small particulars of a long journey escape me. Meals were served frequently, and while I’ve never liked train food much, I didn’t think it was too bad. Tea was actually nice. I’d recharged my Internet balance on my phone – something I don’t normally do – and I had a few things to read before the MUN. Sometimes I could only get 2G, even though I’d paid for 3. As I recall, time moved quickly enough. The gentlemen took upon themselves the noble office of conversing loudly between themselves, laughing and guffawing all too frequently. The effect that their joviality had on me may be imagined.

Our other companion was, of course, the boy. His family was polite enough; the man who appeared to be his father was especially taciturn. What the young man lacked in vocal strength, however, he made up for with his phone. His parents, whose first language I believe was Hindi, seemed to be endeavouring to teach him English. This in itself is certainly commendable, if I may venture to say so: certainly, without meaning to boast, I can say that I’ve found a grasp of the language to be useful. How they taught him concerns us, however: they gave him video lessons on their smartphone. Again, they were prudent, in not giving the child earphones. Therefore, for as long as our young friend was awake, I was treated to nursery rhymes and similar intolerable rubbish. One has only to be confined to a small space for some time, in the presence of such a symphony, to know why I use these words. When the noise became unbearable, I’d get up and stand in the space near the restrooms and the doors; the doors were always shut, and the area being tolerably clean, it was fairly pleasant.

While lying down, probably to sleep on the night of the 4th, I got an idea for a play. I think I might write it as the entry for this year’s competition at college.

The train was late. I can’t remember how time passed, try as I might. But I remember my disappointment when I realised it would be a long time before we pulled into Pune. The terrain was as you’d expect: mostly dry, often with hills in the distance. I made sure to do one thing I’d planned to: I put my earphones on and played (at a volume unusually loud for me) Guren no Yumiya, as the train snaked past red hillocks on the left. There was an unscheduled stop some time after, long enough for several people to get down and stretch their legs. It was a small, deserted station; beyond the wooden fence, nothing but dry grass stretched to the horizon, punctuated by a few trees. I took a couple of pictures, but I can’t remember the name. It was nice to catch some sun after a day. The train left eventually, and I sat down, waiting. It was obvious by then that we were going to be late, and they wouldn’t serve us lunch for the extra time, either.

The last few hours were spent by letting the child play with one of the men’s phones. He kept saying ‘Mew’ to Talking Tom, and hitting him, and it was quite entertaining watching him play. Of course, at this point I just wanted to be at the hotel, and I was a little worried about whether I’d be missing anything for being late. There’s something I’ve neglected to mention: I was in touch with the Sec-Gen (the Secretary-General), and he’d been so gracious as to promise to pick me up himself (or send someone else) at the station. I called him when the train left Daund (it reversed direction twice: once at Manmad, and then at Daund). He said everything would be fine. That’s when the little kid started playing with Tom, by the way. What can I say of the agonising wait, first as the train sped, and then as it crawled, with the outskirts of the city outside our windows? Nothing except a little anecdote: the waiters, and then the sweepers, came to ask us for tips, with trays full of hundred rupee notes. I’m sure I was liberal enough.

At long last, the train pulled into the station, and everyone left. The lady came down; the three friends left; I waited. The Sec-Gen arrived, insisted on taking my bag (the handle gave us a little trouble, and would continue to do so for the next few days), helped the lady with hers, and walked with me to the exit. He said I could eat if I wanted to, but I declined, opting to get to the hotel. We walked out into the bright sunshine, and I finally asked him if it was okay to speak in Bengali, our first language. He said it was. He told me taking a taxi (they’re what we call ‘autos’ in Kolkata, as you’d expect) was too expensive at the station, but just outside, it wasn’t. So we walked out, and he got us one, and we took off. He talked about the traffic, among other things I forget. We went under a tunnel, past a series of small stalls, and over the river (he asked the driver why he was taking that route, as I recall), and without much incident, we came to the hotel, at a crossroads. It was the ‘Symbiosis area’; I forget, but I think it might have a name. I told you my memory was bad.

The Secretary-General, a Third Year student of being the perfect gentleman, paid my fare and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He made a phone call, and it turned out we were at the wrong hotel. We got into the same taxi, and rode off into the adjoining street – a wide one that went past the Marriott Hotel on our left (which had been on the opposite end of the crossroads, stretching far past it). After a couple of minutes, we were there: the Sahara Hotel, as the website had promised. We crossed the road (I’m sorry those same consonants keep coming back), as the Sec-Gen showed me the restaurants on the ground floor (the hotel didn’t have any itself, but the building was the same). We entered, and were met with two more people from the Organising Committee. I filled in my name in the register, and we went up to the first floor on the elevator, and went into Room 101.

I think that about settles it for this post. I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to write. Until next time.