48 Hours in India, Chapter IV “Homeless in Trichy”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

Buying tickets on public transportation in India reminds me of the DMV during peak hours, if the DMV workers didn’t like you, didn’t speak the same language, were always overburdened, only used technology from the early eighties and the whole thing took place in a Kafka story.

You’re constantly bombarded by the crush of the crowd and wildly conflicting information. One person will tell you there is no train, another will tell you there is one, but it’s sold out, and a third will tell you there’s only a train every other day. After you sort through it all, you’ll realize that none of them are correct, and whether it’s a language barrier, miscommunication on your part or part of a tradition of confusing foreigners, you end up going through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat. When you have to get out of town, you have no choice but to dive into that process with gusto and, if you’re persistent and lucky, you’ll come out the other side with a ticket to the next destination. Leaving Trichy was the first of many such experiences for us. Ah, the joys of getting around in India.

The train station in Trichy is large, old and always busy. It consists of a long building in front of six rows of rat infested train tracks, a separate ticket building in front and a palacial office complex guarded by soldiers on the other side of the busy parking lot. Each building is large, concrete and somehow both nostalgic and menacing. But before you even get to the buildings you’ve got to navigate the crowds.

The path to the ticket building is a gauntlet of colorful chaos, a deluge of sensory overload in the form of a flood of humans. Men in dhotis, slow moving contingents of women in colorful saris and  solitary, emaciated sadhus (no doubt mixed in with fake sadhus, not that we could tell the difference) are all flowing through the walkway, sitting on the curbs and sleeping in alcoves. Endless lines of autorickshaws and taxis drop people at the curb, pick people up and jostle to go through the large round-about, honking endlessly.  Large troupes sit together on neatly folded cardboard and blankets in the shade of the multistory station building. They stop chatting and watch as you go by. It’s an intense experience to walk through that crowd, especially when you draw attention to yourself just by being a foreigner. You can feel all the eyes on you and while it’s almost all just simple curiosity, it puts you on edge.

The ticket building is one large room filled with metal chairs all facing a row of teller windows. The walls above the teller windows are covered in Tamil and impossibly complex train schedules that, if studied carefully, contradict each other. Behind these windows sit ancient CRT monitors manned by three or four uniformed workers, who speak through small holes in the grimy plexiglass to the hordes outside trying to buy tickets.

At some distant point in the past the building was set up for people to queue in orderly lines in front of each window, but the rows of metal chairs cut this area very short so lines can only be two or three people long. It doesn’t matter anyway because people simply swarm the windows like bees on a flower almost out of pollen. When you’re in India, you need to get used to the idea of wedging your way to the front and not letting people in front of you or you’re going to be queueing until you starve.

We’d been there the night before and, after working to the front of the mob, we were helped by the same ticket lady. She was just as surly and just as hard to understand as she’d been nine hours ago. She informed us there was a train leaving at ten o’clock that morning, that it was sold out but that they kept a few extra seats for foreigners as long as we filled out some paperwork in an office in a different building.

It was very difficult to hear her through the small window in the plexiglass and she didn’t go out of her way to explain. You have to crouch, ask your question then quickly put your ear to the hole in the glass, trying your best to ignore the cacophony of the crowd behind you. It means you can’t read their lips as they speak and you’re left trying to piece together their response, sometimes not even sure if they’re speaking a language you understand. It’s not a great way to communicate and it makes the process, already burdened with cultural barriers and your own ignorance, really prone to error. Which in our case, turned out to be a hard learned lesson.

It was just after nine, so we bought the tickets and hustled back to our hotel to grab our bags and check out. We made the trek again with our packs and wandered around the well guarded building across the street, in search of the paperwork and signatures that would guarantee us  seats on the next train out of Trichy. The guards outside the building but they didn’t even look at us as we went in (always a good sign) and we wandered for a few minutes trying to find anything that looked like an office where foreigners could fill out paperwork. There were no signs of any kind and we were lost. Ten was getting closer and we’d already spent a good chunk of our budget on the tickets and we were already checked out of our hotel. We were officially homeless. After ten minutes of wandering and growing increasingly nervous a lady in a blue sari took pity on us. Thank Shiva. After looking at the forms we had and the tickets we’d bought, she gave a big sigh and led us to a large open room on the second floor, filled with desks and file cabinets.

The place was an office, but not what comes to mind when you hear the term. The building was old, almost certainly built under British rule and left largely alone after that. The walls, floors and ceilings were all concrete and ornate, with lots of columns and moulding that was both decorative and utilitarian. Metal fans on long extensions telescoped down from the high ceiling and slowly turned the still air. The outward walls were almost entirely warehouse style windows; stacks of small frames, some missing glass, others blacked out. The light coming in was mottled and reminded me of a garage. There was no plastic or ceiling tiles anywhere. Everything was metal, heavy wood and concrete. The thick walls muted the constant honking and roar of the traffic outside and gave the place a slightly sacred feel: this was the holy place where signatures are given out, a nerve center of the impenetrable and vestigial bureaucracy inherited from the British that remains the law of the land.  The office gave off the sense that nothing had ever been replaced or updated and when looking out over the room it was easy to imagine East India Trading Company lackeys typing up telegrams during the British Raj, while soldiers armed with bayoneted carbines and gurkhas smoked outside wearing pith helmets, keeping a disdainful eye on the ebb and flow of humanity outside.

All of the public buildings, especially train stations, in India have this same strange, dated  feel, as if the past is superimposed on the present, or at least close enough that you catch glimpses of it out of the corner of your eye. A fresh coat of paint or the occasional passenger with a smartphone can’t quite undo the feeling: it’s steeped into the walls, reapplied every day by the crowds who are living the same way they did a hundred years ago. When you combine this sense of the past and the present coexisting with the general chaos of India and your own sense of being lost and out of your depth, you get a heady mixture of both travel fatigue and excitement. You can feel the history, reaching all the way back into mythology, coexisting with British colonialism and modern India, swirling around in the dust, coating every emaciated Brahman and temple, train station and pot-holed road. You can see it in the exhausting hives that are the cities and in the gurkha and rifle toting toting soldiers keeping watch in colonial era forts. It coats the walls and floors worn smooth with the countless hands and feet of countless people over hundreds of years, made permanent by wave after wave of humanity crashing repeatedly against the barely changing landscape. It’s too much to take in, an animal too complex and old to tame or even fully understand. India will lay you out and run you over with a fleet of rickshaws if you let it, and you can’t help but marvel at the mixture of beauty and chaos while it happens. The best you can do is hold on, take a few breaths and do everything in your power to get on your train.

We filled out more paperwork in the office, which included questions like “Why do you deserve an emergency exemption? To which we were instructed by the lady in the blue sari to answer with: “Because we are American tourists.” This made me feel uncomfortable, but we did what she said. After all, we were ready to get out of Trichy. A grumpy man behind a desk made a phone call, and we were told we had spots on the train and escorted out. More specifically, we had spots on the train leaving that night. Not the training leaving in the next half hour.

We were shooed out of the office before I could get my questions across. The ticket lady had said it was a train leaving ten am, not pm. But we were already out the door and the people inside had returned to whatever business they’d been working on before we interrupted.

I checked the ticket. The information was dot matrix printed onto a standard form, with fields for passenger info, berth, time, etc. The underlying ticket was offset so the printed information floated a bit unmoored from the corresponding text that gave it meaning. It was in Tamil and cryptically abbreviated English. The English portions were strangely translated and hard to parse but, on the very bottom edge of the ticket, partially off the edge was printed: “22:20.” This was in the general vicinity of the heading “Tim D” which I now understood to mean time of departure. I looked at my watch. 9:42. We had 12 hours and forty minutes to kill in Tiruchirappalli.

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