Friday, November 28, 2008

Railway days

We reach Ahmedabad at dusk. We have been on a sweaty train all day, and arrive at dusk, the light murky with pollution, the streets busy at rush hour. The city has been called 'the Manchester of India', because of its role at the centre of India's cotton industry, and like Manchester, the city has passed its boom days far behind. We have only one night and one day here before catching a night train and the only place we want to visit, a textile museum described as one of the best in the world, is closed on Wednesdays. Needless to say, it is Wednesday. As always in such instances we resort to the standard fall back of wandering around the bazaar. There's an old mosque built by Mr. Ahmed himself, and his tomb, which is now surrounded by houses, lines of washng hanging up, and a herd of goats eating anything that doesn't move. At the station that evening we discover that we have moved up the waiting list and now have confirmed berths on The Gujarat Mail to Bombay. We have plenty of time to find our seats and stow and lock our rucksacks. The carriage is open and divided up into sections that sleep six, with two more across the corridor. We have paid extra to go in an air-conditioned carriage, because the next morning we will be changing trains and continuing for another 27 hours to Kerala. Our decision not to stop in Bombay turns out to be a good one in hindsight. As everyone settles down to sleep mobile phones start ringing and we hear occasional English words pop out amongst all the Gujarati, Maharashtri and Hindi. "Bomb blast" gets our full attention. In the morning, we get off with the family from our section at a suburban interchange. It's not yet 6 o'clock, but people are already queuing to buy tickets for the local trains. With perhaps 20 million residents, the trains are always busy, but the ones we take to our next station are mostly quiet - mind you it is early. We have no more information about the bombings, but luckily we meet two young English women who have a mobile phone so that we can ring home. We think about Elke and Axel who were planning to fly home from Bombay in the early hours of the morning. As normal, the policemen at this station are just sitting around scratching themselves and twiddling their lathis - looks like just another day.

Our train to Cochin leaves just before 12. There's an inordinate number of people in our section for six, and after some quick questioning we determine who are actually travelling and who are family seeing them off. The standard ratio is about 1:4. We then engage in the usual what is your profession, where have you been in India. Finally the train whistle goes and we slide away. It's a huge snake of a train, but then they always are - millions upon millions must travel every day across India - and amazingly the whole system seems to work very smoothly. Shortly staff are plying the passengers with tea, coffee, pakora and taking orders for lunch. The third stage of our journey south has begun.

The following day we pick up another English-language daily, but there is only the front page with coverage of the attacks in Bombay and not much new information. In fact very little in the way of facts at all. But in the sports section a double-page spread on how it will affect the cricket! We have time on our hands and read every page. Gayle spots this in an article on state elections: "The second ... phase of Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh saw an estimated 60 per cent turnout on Thursday and was by and large peaceful but for the killing of a BJP candidate and stabbing of a presiding officer." On another page there is a paragraph about the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, campaigning for re-election. Her name is Mayawati, a Dallit, who is being tipped as a possible future prime minister. She will have some help on her campaign trail: "Seven-year-old Simran Bangotra who looks, dresses and addreses rallies exactly like the UP CM, is being brought in to campaign in different parts of Jammu. Party sources say 'Mini' Mayawati is also likely to address public rallies in areas where polls will be held on December 24th."

Looking out of the windows the landscape has changed. Vivid green paddy fields and brightly painted houses tucked in amongst coconut palms. The sea. We are now trundling into Kerala and it looks like a hundred miles from the urban sprawl of Bombay. And the rest.

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