Haw, haw, please come; you will be okay, I have curfew passes for us. So says my friend, Shabbir Lalani, an active social worker based in Hyderabad. He is assuring me of my safety in the violence engulfed city; bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims that has flared up in the Old City, resulting in total curfews and shoot at sight orders to security personal. Shabbirbhai a quiet man, a shrewd man, has kept it secret that train tickets for our trip from Hyderabad to Nampali are in a non air-conditioned second class compartment. Had he informed me about this, I would not have left safe and secure Mumbai. There are some benefits to the curfew however, the roads from airport to the city, usually a crowded cocktail of traffic mayhem are deserted, so we fly past to the train station, secure in the knowledge the curfew pass with Shabbirbhai will rescue us from any eager, irate policeman with an itchy finger on the trigger.
When I find the train station subdued and somewhat deserted, my spirits elevate; the train ride will not be so bad. This optimism is quickly busted when Shabbirbhai, rather demurely, gives me the bad news. I almost swoon in shock and choke on my spit which decides to travel down the wrong way in sympathy with my emotional dismay. Say what! I shout, but Shbbirbhai spreads his arms wide in a gesture of helplessness. There were no better seats, this is vacation period in India and families are heading back to the villages, it was either these seats or a three months wait for the air-conditioned class to open up. With this matter of fact reality, I shut up but my heart is already inconsolable.
Now, for you who may question the intensity of my sorrow, let me give you a brief history of train travel in India. On average, twenty million people travel by train in India, every single day. Re-read the number, that’s right; your calculator will refuse to compute an annual total, so I did it for you on Excel; seven billion, three hundred million humans travel by train every year in India. This is more than total number of humans in the whole world!!!. There is only one train per day that plies the Hyderabad – Nampali route and it is always crowded and unruly, even in first class. So the prospect of trying to sleep through 320 miles of travel in the allocated class in the heat, humidity, noise, smells and mosquitoes can fill even the most seasoned Indian traveler with dread. Now, if we had first class seats, it would be a different story all together. Two crispy white bed sheets, two fluffy pillows, ample space and cool, almost cold air conditioning. Why, you wouldn’t even miss home. Almost.
I am going to the sleepy village of Nagaram, which is about 5 miles from Narsapur, which is 20 miles from Nampali. Nagaram was badly hit with a typhoon last year and the villagers lost everything they owned, their homes too. CAI has agreed to rebuild sixteen such homes, for families that are really in very bad shape; I am going to inspect the progress of these homes. Nagaram sits in the eastern coastal region of Andra Pradest so it can get pretty sultry in summer, which is just now beginning.
My worst fears surface as we board the train; a whiff of urine emits from the toilets and our seats are but two rows away; I grind my teeth and brace for disaster. The train leaves on the dot and I prepare for battle; the battle for space. The train stops at the next station and a mini riot ensues as our cabin gets overcrowded fast-fast. When things settle down, I am left starring at a very heavy set woman with ample bosoms and a ring on her nose so huge, I am reminded of a cow in a similarly fix. She is sweating profusely, her blouse a wet mess, curly hair matted to the forehead and a string of flowers that must have brightened her day earlier but now looked as miserable as she. Her eyes are shut tight as she tries to stabilize her breathing, large hands flap, flap upwards and down and sideways in a futile gesture to create non existing cooler air. I glare at her; I am so mad. She has decided not only to transport her large bulk, but maybe her entire household stuff, as the limited aisle space between her and me is packed paraphernalia solid and her large pudgy legs now overflow over the stuff and our knees almost kiss. Then she opens her eyes and stares at my sullen, angry face and smiles the widest, brightest of smiles, revealing startlingly white against very dark skin teeth. She bobs her head in the universal Indian sign of greeting and acknowledgement; horrified at myself, instantly, unthinking, I return the bob; ALL IS VELL.
Evening turns into night and the air turns super humid as the train snakes her way east, towards the sea. We eat dinner; chapattis with chunks of tandoori chicken while the madam across me busies herself with chunks of heaped rice with daal curry shoved into a hungry mouth. She seems a happy camper, this mama, for she smiles a lot, this time with yellow rice grains stuck to her brilliantly white teeth. With nothing else to do, the lights go off by nine and I delicately climb up to the third berth to try and sleep; I bump my head along the way several times, for the space is super cramped, but my ow, owch, ow, owch protests go ignored. I undress to my briefs, uncaring; it is simply too hot and humid. There are no bed sheets, no pillows, only the stale smelly plastic that sticks to my skin and makes rude, farting noise whenever I have to unglue myself which is often, as I turn and toss through the night.
I sleep in fits, as the train makes many stops; with inevitable commotion at every station, together with several tones of snoring in the cabin enough to wake the dead. It is also very humid and the blend of urine, body odor, mix of tandoori masala and daal among others makes sleep that is unsettled; I dream of missiles made from extracts of madam’s teeth being fired at me. These missiles are tiny boiled rice grains that grow huge and deadly as they approach me.
The train arrives Nampali right on the dot of six but I am a mess; tired, sleepy and with a terrible crick in my neck. I go through my task ahead sluggishly; the guys there must think I have a hangover. We take a rickshaw to Nagaram, meet with the committee overseeing the construction project and eat a massive lunch which makes me even sleepier. I gratefully crash on to my berth for the train ride back to Hyderabad and a flight home to Mumbai later in the morning. Thank God I am too exhausted to care about anything and just haphazardly sleep through the entire train ride.
Jet Airways flight to Mumbai is right on time, five minutes early, even. I look forward to going home and playing with Maaha Zainab who I miss very much whenever I travel. It is when we are almost above Mumbai that the pilot comes alive and informs we are being diverted to Ahmadabad. Eh? Mumbai airport has closed down due to VVIP movement and we do not have enough fuel to circle around Mumbai for the ninety minutes it will take for the VVIP to depart and airport to reopen. So we are in Ahmadabad for an hour before we take off and head for home.
My neighbor, a smart young man in his thirties perhaps gets chatting with me. Who am I, where I am heading, where I am from… Then we speculate about who this VVIP could be whose movements merited an airport closure. I don’t care who it is, I say carelessly, he is an idiot, inconveniencing thousands of people. I must have said this quite brashly, for there is an uncomfortable silence from those sitting close to us. That man could only be our Prime Minister, says this young man after a while, we don’t call our Prime Minister an idiot, however inconvenienced we may be.
Oops, ouch! Nako. ALL IS NOT VELL.
In Hyderabadi lingo, haw means yes and nako, no.