It’s 6 am in the morning and I’m on a sleeper train to Bangalore for the day with a friend to meet with others. To call this a sleeper train seems a laughable misnomer. I can’t imagine how sleep would be possible here of all places. Better sleep might well be had laying down in the middle of a busy road. People sit carelessly at or on the feet of sleeping passengers, while the endless stream of sellers call their wares as they pass up the train. The open windows allow all the noise of the tracks and more in. While another passenger sits and plays music at a volume that is hardly acceptable to my just woken self. How the sleeping bodies feel I can’t say. This is most likely just normal life to them. Not for the first time I marvel at the proximity with which people manage to conduct their daily lives here.
The smells are another thing. It has never been one of my dominant senses, but in India I’m aware of a whole new effluvious world that I can’t block out. My nose constantly betrays me as I will my breath to come through my mouth instead but fail repeatedly. The olfactory onslaught shifts constantly so that I never quite habituate. I’m always vaguely aware: aftershave in bucket loads, food, toilets and their contents, rotting waste, half-digested food carried on air from mouths, expelled from stomachs and worse places beside. A cornucopia of smells coming from the train itself, the bodies of my fellow passengers and flying in on the barely-deserving-of-the-name fresh air from outside. The inescapable smell of life in close quarters. As I pass the train manager he belches nonchalantly, seemingly without second thought and I struggle against the involuntary heave that my stomach gives in reply as I inhale it fully. I concentrate on breathing, for the moment ignoring the fact that I need to find my seat and handing responsibility over to my friend on that score.
We find our seats just by the door. A fact which, I find out later, makes the olfactory experience far richer than it would be otherwise. And we enjoy a quiet conversation before lapsing into silence.
For all the smell and bustle, it’s not entirely unpleasant. I mean, it is, deeply. On one level. But there’s another layer too. My senses are alive, and I’m learning to associate this with the knowledge that so am I. The unpleasantness roots me to the spot, like an arrow pinning my awareness to the right here, right now. And there’s something exciting about that, enlivening. I sit cross legged on the lower berth of the 3rd class sleeper and reflect on the surreality of the fact that I’m sitting here in a place I never expected to be, with people I never expected to meet and I marvel at the turns that life takes. I never thought I’d be here. We lost our bikes on the edge of Europe, but even before that I never thought I’d travel to India. But here I am. It’s not riding my bike with the fresh breeze on my face, that’s for sure but it’s quite something none-the-less. So the sensory discomfort is easy to bear, I’ve been through far worse. And besides, it seems to be receding now. I’m accommodating to it after all, I just needed to stop focusing on it. A friendly smile from a fellow passenger here, a moment of quiet conversation there, as an unspoken but tangible sisterhood between my friend and I grows. And a gratitude that I am here, watching the sun rise over the blood red soil of the Indian subcontinent as I ghost over it.