Blood on the tracks
An Irishman’s Diary about train journeys in India
‘It was in 1996, when my wife and I flew to Delhi for a sort-of delayed honeymoon. We had just made the obligatory visit to Agra and the Taj. Now we were headed for Udaipur: home of the famously luxurious Lake Palace Hotel (of which we would have a lovely view from our, much cheaper, accommodation)’
When you live in a small country like ours, everything about India seems overwhelming. Even that news report this week about a train that ploughed through Hindu pilgrims in Bihar, killing 34, and sparking a riot.
The story was accompanied by the statistic, itself appalling, that every day on the “vast but decrepit” Indian rail network 40 people die: often slum dwellers who live near the tracks and use them as toilets, or passengers falling from carriages.
The thought of so many rail fatalities, day after day in India, doesn’t bear thinking about. But as it happens, some years ago, I witnessed the aftermath of just one such death, and I’ll never forget it.
It was in 1996, when my wife and I flew to Delhi for a sort-of delayed honeymoon. We had just made the obligatory visit to Agra and the Taj. Now we were headed for Udaipur: home of the famously luxurious Lake Palace Hotel (of which we would have a lovely view from our, much cheaper, accommodation).
It was a long journey. So we bought first-class tickets, which were in any case surprisingly affordable. And when we couldn’t find a first-class carriage at Agra, we mistakenly assumed our tickets would cover us for the car marked “second-class air-conditioned”.
Not so, as a friendly inspector subsequently explained. It turned out that second-class air-conditioned carriage was a) more expensive and b) despite the empty seats we’d found, fully booked. So at the nearest stop, we had the odd experience of being politely demoted to first class, the inspector leading us back along the track to the compartment we had missed earlier.
The reason for the eccentric pricing was quickly obvious. Seats in first class were just as comfortable, and in one of those small, old-fashioned compartments. But there was no air-conditioning. The windows were open to the heat and dust of Rajasthan. And as a bonus, unlike those sealed off in second-class air-conditioned, we had to endure the guilt, at every stop, of having poor Indians approach our carriage and plead for
Anyway, we sat in the new compartment for a while, waiting for the train to move. Then we became aware of a crowd gathered outside. They were not agitated, just curious, and seemed to be studying some problem affecting the train wheels. I guessed that rail-workers were carrying out maintenance, which would explain the delay in leaving.
But after a while, I got out to see for myself, and immediately regretted it. Under the carriage was the neatly severed head of a man: lightly bearded, I remember. I went back inside and told my wife: “You don’t want to know”. It was too late. She was looking out the other window, where the rest of the remains were being lifted clear.
We never found out exactly what had happened the poor man. As I remembered later, however, the train had approached the station very slowly, from a long way out. If the death was an accident, it must have been a freakishly unfortunate one.
We made multiple other train trips in India and never saw anything like that again. But, for good or bad, you meet all human life on the country’s rail network. And so, for entirely different reasons, the return journey from Udaipur will also be forever etched on my memory.
This time we were in a six-berth, triple-deck sleeper and sharing it with two young Indian couples who, combined, had three children. They were all very nice. But sitting on the lower seats during the early evening was like being in somebody else’s living room – a very small living room.
So, there being nowhere else to go, we retired early to our top bunks, which were about two feet from the ceiling. And unable to fall asleep, or do anything else, we spent an horrendously long time staring at that ceiling, during a 17-hour journey to Delhi.
By happy contrast, we also met a doctor who had a curious story to tell. It was in one of those old-fashioned compartments, so it may well have been on that same trip to Udaipur – I can’t recall now. But I do remember him telling us about a weird form of group therapy he was pioneering.
The idea was to get people to laugh together, for prolonged periods, from which he claimed great therapeutic benefits followed. It sounded bizarre but he was very serious. And I can’t say for certain that the man we met was the one who really did start it. But looking it up recently, I learned that laughter yoga was indeed first practised by an Indian doctor, circa 1995, since when it has become an international movement: with thousands of clubs in 72 countries.