The train itself was sectioned into a range of different classes and the quest for the right carriage was a journey in itself. I was momentarily joined by the ‘flying Dutchman’, a tourist from Holland who had occupied the previous half hour sprinting desperately across the platform, occasionally leaping onto what he thought was the right carriage before emerging seconds later, beaten back by a group of squabbling locals. As his panic mounted, the scene offered a small allegory for the Dutch colonial success in India.
I eventually found my carriage, which had been given the title of 3AC and thus housed a primitive ventilation system and a bunk bed comprising three platforms. The twist being that, by day, the middle bunk was temporarily retracted, making a back rest for passengers sitting on its bottom counterpart. This set-up inadvertently created a silent and strategic contest as to who would seize the top bunk. Other passengers had already laid weak territorial claims with the use of bags or by ostentatiously reviewing its mattress, but experience had taught me that these were mere frivolities and bore no influence on the eventual outcome.
I concluded that Machiavellian guile would be best-suited to the situation and so, feigning a visit to the toilet, I waited until relevant guards had been lowered, and scrabbled up the ladder and onto the top bunk. Gracious in defeat, the other contenders accepted the return of their baggage as the olive branch of peace, leaving me free to turn my attention to the fact it was only 8.30pm and I still had all three of the bunks’ bedding, sandwiched between my calf muscles.
Having severed diplomatic ties with my section of the carriage, I turned to the Eastern front for a means of depositing the, seemingly, goat-haired blankets. From my perch, I could make out a suitable space on the other bunk and, leaning across, placed my offering at the feet of its slumbering occupant. My assumptions that the recipient’s sleep would be long-lasting proved incorrect and, when I returned from the train‘s kitchen, the blankets had been stacked innocuously by my pillow.
Although his features betrayed little, I recognised the subtle invitation and, when he was forced to heed nature’s call, I readdressed the temporarily skewed balance by returning the pile. Defiant in the face of my advantageous high ground, he retaliated as soon as the situation allowed it and this war of attrition continued late into the night. As it breached 2am the effects were beginning to show on the carriage, blankets were strewn haphazardly across the theatre of conflict and, mercifully, a silent truce was agreed.
This, however, was by no means the end, and he exacted his revenge minutes later where, amongst the demonic orchestra of snores, his chainsaw-like offering distinguished itself in both pitch and tone.
The seventeen hour journey from Jaipur to Mumbai was buoyed by the train’s primary asset of doors which could be retracted when the train was in full flight. Undeterred by the 200 rupee fine (£2.80) , passengers used the area as a smoking section. The most prolific amongst this gathering were the train’s kitchen staff, whose professional perks included an uncontested position at the helm of the doorway.
During the quieter hours, the doorways offered an enclosed insight into rural India. If you can tolerate the track’s occasional encounters with gaping ravines, the mosaic of scenery is a stark contrast to the overflowing hue of cities. Glimpses of life present themselves in clusters of crude, wooden huts or the rhythmic bobbing of a farmer.
My position was located near the train’s kitchen and, during a routine night time stop, a band of country folk emerged from the veils of darkness surrounding the train. As I watched them clamber on, they were led, as if by natural intuition, to the awaiting cooks. After a round of handshakes, the visitors were handed the neatly-wrapped leftovers from dinner before returning into the night. The evidence was not conclusive enough to suggest a regular occurrence, but I feared the one-sided nature of the deal left the recipients in a precarious position, should there be a next time.
The breaking of dawn saw the surrounding bunks twitch into motion before the, now calming, sound of snores were replaced with awkward and ungainly shuffling that suggested the approach of Mumbai. I reached the doorway in time to see that the train was heading southwards through the city, and away from my flat in the suburbs. Having deemed my seventeen hour sentence as sufficient to experience the sleeper train and noticing the train had reached a manageable pace, I threw my bag onto the tracks before following shortly.
As I looked around for the recognisable features I had grown accustomed to in my previous stay, I noticed that I had caught Mumbai at a particularly vulnerable moment. The local men were firmly accustomed with the guilty pleasure of the early morning shit and had, for some reason, chosen the railway tracks as deserving of their waste. Whether as a sign of protest or appreciating the element of danger, the established technique seemed to be to squat directly over the train line, and the orderly line followed the track as far as my stomach would allow my eyes to see. With head firmly down, I passed in between a momentary gap and, seeing the relieved face of someone who had thought I was going for his spot, continued into the city.