Part II The Magic Mountain: Train Flight

I found Cressida standing at the end of the train compartment by an open door. “What are you doing?” The rush of wind and the steady, urgent clug clug clug of the wheels on the tracks whipped the words from my mouth just as the sea breeze will snatch a hat from your hands.

The rectangular outline of the iron door framed Cressida’s back: her fluttering, spider-web gossamer scarf; her tossing auburn pony tail; her light blue, flower embroidered salwar kameez; and a slightly curved, freckled English cheek, turning now in my direction.

She rested her eyes on me with a luminous, mischievous smile—but I knew by the way her mouth still hung, half open, and by the way her eyes shown like gleaming mirrors in the fading sun, that I had not interrupted her day-dream so much as become a part of it.

“It’s soo lovely!” she said. She bunched her shoulders and swung back toward the door. “Come and look!”

The steel sheeted floor rattled violently. I approached the rectangular frame of countryside—the descending steel stairs, the crashing wheels, the clawing gust. I once jumped off a cliff in the Grand Canyon into a river. My legs trembled then in the same way.

“You have to try it! This is my absolutely favorite part about trains.” A feral wildness peeked out of the flying strands of hair across her face. “Grab the handrails and stick your head out. Like this!”

She plunged out the door, holding her weight in place by no more than the small, pale fingers wrapped around the guardrails. Then she pulled herself back into the car—like a diver pulling back on the arm rails of a diving board—and maneuvered to the side so that I, too, could take my turn. Her sudden physical absence in front of the door opened up a world of rippling plains and hills.

Gulping down air, I leapt into the the wind-whipped world of sun-dried fields; craggily, rocky ochre hills; yellow mustard seeds; thatched huts; and villagers watching a white man’s grin appear and disappear as quickly and unannounced as the train whistle. The whistle’s scream tore through the desert sky with the shriek of steel wheels over the tracks and red rusted sparks of locomotive-lightning.

I laughed, hooted, hollered: the wind seized my voice and  scattered it over the stretching farmland of mustard and wheat like so many seeds of soul.

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“Hey, Johnny, over here!” Half-hovering outside of the door, I caught side of Cressida’s face from the next train car. “Isn’t this the best?” She roared.

I opened my mouth to yell back when a hand closed over my shoulder. I glanced back. An employee stood in his blue uniform. “Excuse me,” he said.

“Sorry.” I swung back into the car. “Just wanted to take a look. It’s so beautiful.”

“Here, sir,” he said, with a shy smile. “You will please sit here?” He lowered a bench for me, so that I could enjoy the view from a safe distance.

The train door of the next compartment slid open and Cressida joined us in the car. She glanced at the employee then back at me.

“Are we in trouble?”

“No,” I said. I slapped my palm on the bench. “Take a seat?” But the view from the bench would not be nearly as intoxicating our parachute-like glide from the train door, and I glanced down the hall. “I think I’m going to head back to the cabin now. The TT will be coming soon.”

“You go,” Cressida said, hopping on the bench like a small bird atop a branch. “I’m going to stay.” And the door vacuumed her eyes out the window.

I steadied myself along the car walls back to our cabin. The rest of my travel companions sat crammed along the left bench. A middle-aged Indian woman sat with her son opposite them. Her love-handles folding into a line at the same height as her son’s head, and a bag of Masala Lays potato chips pouted up in her direction. She gazed out the window with her chin resting over a thick arm.

“Has the TT come by yet?”

“No, but I saw him walking around earlier,” Amar answered. “Come and take a seat, Johnny-boy.”

“We’re all set then with the reservations, right?” I asked, and adjusted my backpack beneath the bench to make room for my legs.

“We’ve got it all sorted out, man,” Amar said, clicking the plastic case of his phone.

We might have made reservations, but I still had some reservations. Only two of our five tickets had been officially confirmed. It was Navratri (the worship of the nine avatars of the goddess Shakti/Devi), which Hindu families celebrate by reuniting with relatives all over the country. Poojas to the goddess had been performed that morning. My landlady had recruited my neighbor Marissa and I to participate in Mahashtami, in which we sang songs with the rest of her family to the deity in the bedroom shrine.

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Groping in my pocket for my unconfirmed ticket in preparation for our visit by the TT, my fingers brushed against the crackling, desiccated mint leaves from the Pooja, which I had failed to swallow. I stared from the leaves to the Hindu woman sitting across from me, wondering what family members was was gong to meet. What goddesses would they be praying to? In what village, city?

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“Tickets!”

The TT rapped his knuckles at the entrance, eyes glued to his clipboard; he did not notice our backs stiffening and straightening against the bench.

Possessing several unconfirmed tickets, under normal circumstances, would have dissuaded us from boarding the train in the first place. But Indian transportation protocols are not American transportation protocols–and India is a land created by the gods for networking. So long as you know a friend of a friend of a friend who knows someone on the railway ministry, and so long as this person approves you over the phone—“Oh, they’re cool, man, let them be”—then unconfirmed tickets magically become confirmed tickets.

So we were told.

“Tickets,” the TT repeated, when the tickets were non-forthcoming.

One second, Ji,” Amar said, flashing his phone out of his pocket as he rushed to dial “the contact.” Amar, from a Punjabi family, had unofficially been nominated the Hindibolnewalla ((Hindi speaker) of the group. Born in Britain to the rocking cradle of Punjabi, he could more successfully pass as a real Indian than those of us with monotone Oklahoma drawls, whiteness, and pooja leaves in our pockets.

Un se bat kar lijiyega” (Please speak with him) Amar said. He handed the phone to the TT, whose eyebrows rose in astonishment.

Kon Hai?” (Who is it?) the TT grunted into the phone grumpily, settling on the bench opposite us. He burrowed his brow. “Ji, Ji…” (yes, yes…)

We  leaned forward to listen. Cressida still had not returned. The man held the phone a foot away from his face and clicked it off while smacking his lisp.

Saheb se baat ki?” Amar asked.

“I don’t know who that man was,” the TT said, handing the phone back. “Tickets,” he repeated.

Panic, we felt.

Amar called “the contact” again to see what had gone wrong as we rifled through our bag, making as if we were searching for our tickets. “Ji Saheb,” Amar said, nodding, pressing the phone desperately close to his ear. “Yes, I will tell him.” Amar handed the phone back. “I’m sorry, will you, will you please speak with him again, he will…” and paused, frantically searching in Hindi for the English equivalent of, “direct you too…”

The TT grabbed at the phone. But as he spoke with our new benefactor something in his tone shifted: familiar verb tenses were switched with honorifics. “Ji, sir,. Samajh gya, lekin kuch nehien kar sakta, train mein to sari sitein book ho chuki hain. Reservation chahiye… Nehien, aisa to neheine hai,, kehene ka matlab yeh hai ki dilli stashion pe doosare TT meri jagah lega… meri takat mein hi nehien…Haa…Nehein, jagah to hai hi nehein… “Yes sir, I understand, but I can’t do anything, all of the seats are already booked.  They need a reservation. No, sir, that’s not the way it is, a different TT will take my place at Delhi station…It’s outside of my power…There isn’t any space…”)

Kam to ho gaya?” (Everything is sorted out?”) Amar asked, rubbing his hands, when the TT once again frowned as he turned off the phone.

“How many of you have reserved tickets?”

“Two,” Priya said (volunteering as the second combatant with the TT.) She pointed to Amar and herself. “We were reassured that the other seats would be taken care.” She rolled her eyes up at him with a clipped passive aggression unique only to a British accent.

“No space,” the TT said. “The seats are booked. Two can stay–but the rest will have to get off at Old Delhi.”

Our eyes widened. Get off? You mean separate?

“Your saying we have to get off at Delhi?” Priya pointed at him as if his recent comment had hidden itself somewhere in his uniform. “There’s nothing you can do?”

“You can arrange a taxi at the train station,” the man said, drumming his fingers in his lap, unconcerned.

“But we’ve already paid money for these tickets!” Priya slipped over to a hall-side bench in outrage to phone her father, who had purchased our tickets.

“Two of you can stay on the train,” the TT said, “but the remaining three,” he stared at Marissa and I, “will have to get out. And pay a fine, for over-booking.” He licked his finger and pulled out a separate notebook, from which he began to tear out thin receipt-like slips.

The TT pocketed our fine and his khaki buttoned-paunch swelled like a balloon into the air as he rose from his seat. He planted his tired, leather shoes out into the hallway. Then, with his eyes once again glued to the clipboard, rapped at the entrance of the next compartment.

“Tickets…”

“I’ll speak with him,” Amar announced. He rose to his feet, but his grin was gone. His eyes focused on the TT and he pursed his mouth. His sharp nose tilted like a weather vein in the direction of the next compartment and a new strategem, which foreigners were perhaps not comfortable with, but which were being compelled to adopt …a proposal, if misunderstood…

After Amar whispered the proposal into the TT’s ear he swung around and stared at Amar then back at us. Nearly three full seconds passed. Then he cleared his throat and stepped out of our neighbor’s cabin.

“Hey Priya, come with us for a bit?” Amar asked, tilting his head down the hallway toward the bathrooms. “The three of us are going to have a talk.”

Priya  said goodbye to her father and pocketed her phone. He had apparently been of no help; her outrage switched to humility. Her eyes locked onto Amar’s, first with curiosity–was he going to do what she thought he was going to do?–then with alarmed acceptance–she was now an accomplice. Her eyes dropped to the floor and she bit her lip as she walked behind Amar and the TT. They stopped at the end of the car, where Cressida and I had been enjoying our train flight only moments before.

The rest of us were left to mull in the cabin and entertain the possibility of another train flight, but of a different kind.

Please Continue On to Part III…

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