It was the summer of 1965, and I was leaving home. I had never been outside of Assam, that too alone. I was still a teenager and scared as hell. I packed my bag and got on a train with many cars heading west. I was riding in a steel monster that spewed black smoke, heading to an unknown desert place. This wasn’t like the train rides at night with my mother as a little boy to the remote town of Dhubri in Assam, when we crossed the mighty Brahmaputra on a steamship with a paddle wheel that was run by the railroad company. Those were exciting trips. I would count the small stations along the way—Amingaon, Sangsari, Baihata, Kendukona, Ghagrapar, Golakganj, Balajan, Gouripur, Dhubri—in anticipation of arriving at the destination at dawn. Now, even though I was older, I was scared riding this monster, alone, to an unknown place. One of my my older brothers had come to the Guwahati train station to see me off. He came across a distant relative who was also travelling by the same train, introduced me, and requested him to help me in Delhi. We were in the same compartment but on different benches.
The train was packed with people. Some even rode on the roof. It appeared like the whole world was on the move. I had no idea where so many people were going to or coming from. I managed to squeeze myself in at the end of a bench occupied by strangers. I might have been a young man, but I felt like a fear-struck boy among these people. They talked different, they dressed different, and they even smelled different. Many people did not have a place to sit. They sat on the floor or stood straight up on the spot where their feet barely fit. Someone stood up to give a seat to an elderly-looking young mother with a crying infant baby. Soon she uncovered her breast and started breast-feeding the baby. I glanced at the baby now quietly having his feed and then averted my head and looked out the window. Packed in with so many people, all I could see was the face of my mother that morning. She watched me from in front of our house by the river and waved until the rickshaw taking me to the train station disappeared.
Looking out the window, the trees on either side seemed to be running backwards. The steam engine’s black smoke was racing in the opposite direction. The train raced through a lush, evergreen forest and past vast fields of rice. I saw a yellow ocean of mustard blooms, and flocks of birds flying freely over the fields in the open sky. I saw villagers singing out loud while catching fish with a jaakoi, a fish trap made of bamboo sticks woven together in a three-dimensional triangular shape with one side open to trap the fish. As the sun began to set, we passed through some tunnels, somewhere in north Bengal. After the train came out of the tunnel, it suddenly stopped. Some people who had hopped the train and were riding on the roof for free, forgot to duck. The tunnel knocked them off and killed them. Nothing could be done, and the train started moving again. Life goes on.
We began passing through vast dry fields and gradually there were fewer green trees. I saw someone teaching a group of scantily clad children sitting in a circle under a tree. I could see they had slates and chalk. I wondered, did their parents ask them to study hard like our father did? Did they also want to get out of their little place? I turned my head back inside the coach and noticed that the baby was sound asleep on his mother’s lap. The train came to a sudden stop. It was the end of the narrow meter gauge track which meant the end of its run. We had to get on another train with a wider, broad gauge track. People pushed and shoved to get on the new train, so they could get a seat. A porter carried our baggage and helped me get into the train through a window as we headed farther west to Delhi, the capital of India.
I was heading to Pilani in the state of Rajasthan, 119 miles west of Delhi. I knew nothing about Pilani. I was told that the desert was different from where I grew up. Camels did everything for the desert people—took them across the desert, provided milk, helped them get water from deep wells. Desert people could not live without them. Camels could go without drinking water for many days. I had never seen a live camel before, and I was trying to imagine this place. My eyes were slowly closing. The undulating motion of the train soon put me to sleep as I sat there leaning my head against the compartment. The rhythmic sound of those iron wheels rolling over the two parallel lines had bothered me at first, but not anymore. The train made a different sound as it crossed bridges over lakes and rivers. Soon I was dreaming.
I awoke with a jolt. The train had stopped, and I heard sounds of commotion outside. I got up, sleepy-eyed, and when I looked out the window, it seemed like a million people outside. Porters were dashing about in all directions, balancing bags and baggage on their heads. People were selling tea, snacks, bangles, and all kinds of trinkets. The passengers leaving the train got busy with their luggage, and a porter announced, “Dilli aa gaya,” in Hindi. “We have arrived at Delhi.” The relative and I found each other. His son and I followed him to the passenger lounge, where he engaged a porter to carry our bags to the lounge, by balancing them on his head. The pile of bags probably weighed more than twice his weight. I was amazed at the strength of these skinny people. And he didn’t walk; he trotted ahead of us, to take care of us quickly so he could get another customer. We kept pace with the porter and walked up the stairs to the passenger lounge. There were lots of families with tired, hungry, and cranky little children and mothers covering their breasts with a piece of cloth as they nursed their infants. I was astonished to see women who were covered from head to toe in a black dress. I had never seen the burqa, worn by some women in the Islamic tradition. The Assamese Muslim girls and women did not wear burqas. Culturally they were Assamese, and they dressed in traditional Assamese Mekhela Chador without a hijab or burqa.
I looked out from the balcony. The mass of humanity astonished me—old, young, disabled, sick, women in burqas, people in turbans, long bearded people, skinny people, fat people, filthy dirty people, and Sadhus in their loin cloth or saffron robes and knotted hair. Porters and rickshaw pullers were hustling to get customers. I could see them haggling over price. People were standing around, chewing betel nut with a green leaf, called paan, and spitting red juice onto the street. Everything competed for space—buses, cars, trucks, rickshaws, carts on wheels pushed by people, stray dogs, cows sleeping in the middle of the busy street, snake charmers, street dancers, and peanut vendors. I was far from my peaceful place on the bank of the river back home. I shuddered to think how I could get lost in this place and never find my way back home.
After we freshened up and had a snack, the relative who was helping me out called a porter to carry my bag. He told me to follow the porter to the bus station that would take me to Pilani and to give him two rupees when the bag was loaded on the roof. He and his son would now leave, as their final destination was Delhi. Though I felt a wave of loneliness, I controlled myself and followed the porter. He walked fast through the massive chaotic crowd and I had to keep up the pace and concentrate not to lose him. As we moved briskly along, the porter with ease and me sweating from every pore beneath a scorching summer sun, I was worried because I had been cautioned not to trust any stranger. What if he took me to the wrong place, or stole my bag?
However, we got to the bus station soon enough. He loaded my bag and I gave him the two rupees. I climbed aboard and found a seat amidst a lot of students like me. From their clothes and demeanor, many appeared to be from well-to-do families. We soon began moving. The bus was comfortable and air conditioned. This was my first time in an air-conditioned vehicle.
Our bus gradually left the crowded city of Delhi behind and drove westward through rural areas. By now I had traveled almost 1,000 miles. The landscape outside had few trees, and looked like it was thirsting for water, unlike the evergreen place and the River back home. I saw huts made of mud instead of thatched roofs. Now and then we passed a caravan of camels. Brightly dressed women rode the camels or walked alongside. The men covered their heads with colorful turbans to protect themselves from the sun. The wind occasionally blew sand across the road, dancing in waves as if choreographed. It looked like there was water in the road up ahead. As we got closer the water kept moving. I realized I was chasing a mirage on the blacktop. Our bus entered a vast desert with smooth rolling sand dunes all around. These sights were all new to me, and I kept looking out the window, enraptured. No grass, no people, and not even a bird in the sky. The desert had a deathly beauty of its own. Far away, I saw a long caravan of camels with people riding and walking alongside. Someone said they were Bedouins, who never live at one place for long. They pick up their tents and move on. We passed through villages with mud huts and camels resting in open areas. I saw a village woman lowering a bucket made of camel skin into a well, with a pulley and a rope tied to camel. The camel was walking away from the well to pull up the bucket of water. I could see that camels were the life of these people. Like my mother, they worked without complaining. They were giving their life in service.
During the five years from 1965 to 1970, I crisscrossed the country from east to west by train many times. I saw rich India and I saw poor India. I saw frustrated and exploited angry India willing to take revenge, or take the law into its own hands. I also saw educated India, and uneducated India, rural and urban, cow dung patty and nuclear reactor, obese and skinny India. I saw fashionable sari-clad ladies with high-heels and sun-glasses puffing cigarettes, frail women building houses for the rich carrying buckets of cement mix on their heads, and young mothers working at hard labor who had to take their babies to work with them and place them on the ground on dirty rags. The land was full of contrast. People in the United States and elsewhere now hear about India’s growing economy, a booming middle class—which is a misnomer, because even if a rising middle class comprises 30 percent of the population, that leaves another 700 million people living on next to nothing, with little to no prospects of improving their abysmally low standard of living. To think there is one India or two Indias is not correct. There are many Indias.