“Sleeper number six” the mustachioed train conductor tells me, “…but run!” he commands. Sprinting across the platform an old man calls “fast!”, and another elderly woman yells from the carriage “get on!” just as the Mandovi Express releases her breaks and starts rolling forward through the sprawling expanse of Mumbai, through the hills of Maharashtra state and the flats of Goa, through eighteen provincial stations and on into the her last stop at Margao, nearly six hundred kilometres south of the megacity of Bombai.
“The Mandovi may be rugged, but it came as a welcome return to real travel after living in Europe for so long, where trains zoom across equal distances in a matter of a few short hours, their windows and doors sealing you in from the noise of the locomotion and the sensations landscape…”
The diesel engine Mandovi moves daily to and fro the metropolis and the former Portugeuse colony. She has a heavy body, rolling at an average of fifty kilometres per hour, but on the flat can achieve one hundred kilometres per hour, the thick foliage blurring by and the dense heat beating through the window her dozing passengers who sleep their twelve hour journey to the monotony of the piston beat and the carriage sway. On the Mandovi Express there is no in-compartment entertainment – no televisions, screens or music – and boredom invades all, the passengers turning to each other for conversational stimulation.
On the Mandovi Express sleeping seems to be the most popular way to pass the time, though interrupting your repose on the benches comes a constant flow of vendors calling out, as if it were some mantra, their refreshments and foods: Chai-Chai-Chai-Chaaaaaaii, Coffee-Coffee-Coffeeee, Samosa-Samosa-Samosaaa, and the best-selling Paani-Paani-Paani-Paaniii, or water. Then come the curries, their smell of a thousand spices invading your dreams as you nod off in the heat.
Other interruptions to your doze come in the form of the transgender Hijra women, who move from carriage to carriage asking for alms in exchange for a blessing or in threat of a curse. They approach the compartments and give a loud clap of the hands, their bangles and jewellery announcing their imminent arrival as they make their way through the carriage.
“The Mandovi Express offered me more smiles than any other train has given me, more handshakes than any plane…”
One of them tries to use her physical charms to awaken this confused traveller’s generosity, her hand receiving a slap of rapprochement for its encroachment. The marginalisation of these Hijra women, I was subsequently told, means that they must resort to these kind of requests, working the trains in groups to survive in a world where employment is withheld from them out of prejudice and stigma.
Muslim, Catholic, and Hindu, my fellow passengers ply their strange companion with questions about his origin and destination, his reason for travel and his marital relations: “Do you read the bible?” – it’s been a while, I confess. “Are you Muslim?”, not quite. I clarify their geographical uncertainties about Spain and Australia, and the inevitable question comes; “Are you married?”, and, to my negative response, “Do you want to get married?”, here I laugh and try my most ambiguous head bobble. The lethargy returns and I fall into a deep doze.
Waking me out of what must be my tenth nap of the day comes the tap of my Muslim friend’s hand, poking through the window from the platform. He offers me his hand, we shake, and smile goodbye – his English and my whichever of the twenty-two official languages of India he speaks are not quite up to scratch for exchanges beyond an improvised sign language and many smiles.
On the Mandovi Express many hands are offered. One comes from a young boy – thirteen he is – who is travelling alone to see his aunt. A group of travelling women dote over him as if he were their own nephew, and they call his father on the boy’s mobile to let him know he is okay and that they will help him find his aunt on arrival. He shakes my hand twice before getting off at his stop. Another young man, a few years older, is travelling from the southern tip of India to Dehli, via Mumbai, to attend a university entrance examination, a two thousand kilometre journey that will determine the course of his life.
The Mandovi Express offered me more smiles than any other train has given me, more handshakes than any plane. The Mandovi may be rugged, but it came as a welcome return to real travel after living in Europe for so long, where trains zoom across equal distances in a matter of a few short hours, their windows and doors sealing you in from the noise of the locomotion and the sensations landscape, their little screens diverting you away from your fellow travellers, distracting you from the possible smiles and handshakes which could have been offered.
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