07:52 to Shimla
Melanie Dixon (University of Auckland, New Zealand)
Jess pushes her way along the crowded platform. Chaos reigns. Women, wearing bright saris, struggle towards the third-class coaches, with bags of vegetables balanced on their heads. Two children in rags, one with a missing eye the other with half a leg, sit on the floor in the middle of the platform, begging. Men shout at each other as they elbow towards the train, while vendors lurch through the crowd yelling, ‘Chai chai!’ A single white cow strolls nonchalantly towards the ticket office, its shoulder blades stick out as it walks. Everything is noise and colour and smell.
Jess struggles onto the train and jostles through the carriage, her old holdall banging against the backs of seats. A week in Delhi has been enough. She shoves her bag onto the metal luggage rack above her head, then collapses into an empty seat. Thank goodness she booked first class, just like Lonely Planet recommended. It had only cost a few rupees more, not that she has many rupees left; she’ll have to find a way to make some more cash soon, anything to avoid going home and facing her mother and the prospect of university and real life.
Jess pulls her journal out of her daysack. She’ll write her blog tonight and Facetime her mum, try to convince her to top up her new credit card. She glances up as a young couple squeeze into the seats opposite. Both are blonde, both wearing shorts and t-shirts. His top says RELAX across the front like some sort of homage to the 80s. Her t-shirt pulls tight over her chest and rides up, revealing her belly button, as she shoves her new looking backpack into place.
‘Hi.’ Jess moves her knees to one side to let the couple sit down and get comfortable.
‘Oh, thank god for that. If I ever have to come back here, I swear, I will literally die.’ The young woman fiddles her hair into a high bun, then slumps into the corner, turning her back on the world outside. She sounds British, with that familiar twang of north-west London.
‘It’ll be better in the mountains, I promise.’ The man grins weakly. His accent has a hint of west coast America, but he’s obviously lived in England too. He turns to Jess. ‘This is the train for Shimla, isn’t it?’
‘I hope so.’ Jess smiles. It won’t be any better in the mountains, just cooler. Lonely Planet touts Shimla as a peaceful hill resort, the summer capital of British India. Kipling and all that.
Two hands bang the window. ‘Hey! Hey!’ A man with no teeth waves a plate, looking for food, or money, or anything.
‘I can’t believe it! Why can’t they just get jobs and stop harassing me for money the whole time?’ The woman leans forward, fixing Jess with her blue eyes. ‘We went to the Taj yesterday. Took all day in a taxi. And when we got there it was just the same. Slums and mess and dirt. It’s like they have no respect for their own culture. I mean, seriously! It took us six hours to get back to Delhi. The roads were closed, and we ended up eating dinner in some roadside shack. I’m surprised we’re not throwing up already. I don’t even know why we came here. Most people go straight to Thailand. I can’t wait to get to Koh Samui.’
‘Round-the-world?’ Jess asks. They just have that look about them.
‘Yup.’ The man nods, digging in his pack for his phone. ‘I wanted to see the Himalayas. We thought about adding Nepal, but we’ll do Thailand and Vietnam instead, then on to Australia, and New Zealand if we’ve got time.’
‘Oh my god, did you even see that man out there?’ The woman interrupts. ‘He was like covered in sores and pus and everything. I don’t know why they don’t get treatment for that stuff. I mean they’ve all got phones, it’s not like they haven’t got any money, you know.’
Jess looks away embarrassed. It is impossible to know what to say to. The train shudders to a start. It pulls out of the station, leaving behind the mass of clamouring hands, lost children and wandering cows on the platform, then it chugs forward and onward through the miles of slums. The train passes the homes of millions of people, all living in shanties made of bits of tin held together with string and cardboard. Whole settlements built around open sewers, with flies and rotting rubbish. Jess doodles in her journal while the round-the-world couple argue about whether India had been a ‘good idea’. As though the world was there for their taking, like some sort of huge theme park.
After a while, the couple grow quiet. The woman puts headphones on, fiddles with her phone, then stares out of the window.
The man leans across to Jess, ‘My name’s Ben,’ he says, then nods to the woman, ‘that’s Claire.’
‘Hi,’ Jess says and shakes Ben’s hand. She really doesn’t want to be drawn into conversation with him, not today. She’s met enough round-the-worlders to know that they just want to talk about the best places to stay, the best party hostels and if you can find anywhere to buy dope.
She had been like that once. When she’d first left home, she was one of those kids on the round-the-world trail. That was until the incident in Athens. It all changed after that. She’d been staying in a youth hostel near the Acropolis, which had probably been a mistake to start with, but it was where Lonely Planet recommended and back then she didn’t have any reason to argue with Lonely Planet. She’d been downstairs at reception looking at tours to Santorini, and when she turned to get her wallet out of her bag, it had gone. Someone had stolen all her hard-earned money, her credit card, everything. It only took a second to figure out her options; either go home in tears and admit it had all been a terrible mistake, admit that her mother was right and that university was a much better choice; or to toughen up and find a way out of the situation. So, that’s what she did. Athens seemed such a long time ago now, even though it had only been six months, she had been so young and naïve back then.
The man, Ben, pulls a book out of his bag and settles down with it on his knees. Jess stifles a laugh when she sees the title. A passage to India – good old-fashioned, colonial fiction. He should be reading something else if he wants to know about real, modern India, with all its grime and crime and rampant inequality. There are plenty of local authors, if only he knew where to look, if only he could break out of what Lonely Planet recommends.
The train has passed the worst of the slums now and is starting to head out of the city, towards open fields and villages. But it’s not until they get to Kolka, on the way to the mountains, that the scenery will really start to change. That’s when they’ll begin to leave the heat and the dirt and the dust behind.
‘Excuse me.’ The woman, Claire, tries to get Jess’s attention.
‘Yes?’ Jess looks up from her journal.
‘Can you mind our bags while we go to the bathroom?’ The woman smiles and the man, Ben, holds up a toothbrush.
‘Sure.’ Jess nods. They have no chance of finding a bathroom, but it might be an experience for them, something else to add to the shocking list of ‘things that happened in India’.
The couple push past. The woman’s eyes glance out the window, and she covers her mouth and nose with one hand, hardly containing her disgust. The man winks at Jess.
As soon as they are out of sight, Jess stuffs her journal back in her bag. She’ll be quick. She’s done this before. Round-the-worlders always leave their valuables in the same place; usually inside the top pocket of their backpack, or failing that, in the side pockets. The woman has even left her shoulder-bag behind. Jess finds the money quickly; enough rupees to last months, and a thousand dollars in hard American cash, just like Lonely Planet recommends. If she was less scrupulous, she would take their passports too. Jess stuffs the cash into her daysack, then grabs her holdall from the luggage rack, and stumbles down the train. She pulls her scarf around her head, leaving just her brown eyes visible, then disappears into the third-class carriages. She’ll leave the train at the next station and head back to Delhi. It will be easy to lose herself amongst the crowds for as long as she needs to.
Shimla could wait.
Melanie Dixon is short story writer, novelist and poet, with work published and anthologised internationally. Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, she is a graduate of Hagley Writers’ Institute, and is currently a student on the Masters of Creative Writing programme at the University of Auckland.