On training in India

Cows, eggs and 'no spitting zones'.

Kirk Leech

Topics World

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Vadodara railway station, 5.30am.

The cow shot off down the railway platform as though it had been kicked. As unlikely as that was – India being the land of the sacred cow – the consequence of the mini stampede was, obviously, panic.

The bovine bulldozer – no recogniser of creed, class or caste – forced everybody out of its way. Young and old dived for cover. A representative of the Railway Protection Force saw the beast coming and helped himself to the safety of the open door of the Baroda Dairy Milk Bar, shattering bottles of local milk in his scramble. One of a group of migrant workers from Rajhastan failed to get out of the way and was lifted straight up into the air by the charging cow.

Two headloders (porters) with heavy packages on their heads, their crimson shirts drenched with sweat, swerved away from the cow. You could sense they’d done it before. The man I had just bought my boiled eggs from was neither as experienced nor as lucky. He saw the cow coming, tried to move his cart to the left and the cow, with the homing instincts of a heat-seeking missile, turned to its right.

Hordes of those sleeping rough on the platform were soon heading for the free boiled egg breakfasts that were rolling along platform one of Vadodara railway station – just as the Golden Temple main steam train which we were waiting for arrived. Indian railway stations are truly a world of their own.

Leaving the UK when I did, in the aftermath of train crashes, chaotic timetables and long delays, listening to the BBC World Service give more than enough time to debates about the risk of rail travel in the UK and Europe, I decided to check out the fourth largest rail system in the world. India has over 60,000 km of rail tracks. On average, over 7000 trains per day run along those tracks, carrying nearly 11million people – just less than the population of London – to over 7000 stations. Vast numbers of people use the railways – and though they sometimes have a string-and-elastic-band feel about them, you generally get there safely and on time.

When Indian railways have crashes, hundreds tend to die, but that’s because the trains are packed and long. One train I took to Calcutta had 23 carriages; people were hanging out of the doors, sitting on top of the roofs, crammed in. The rush hour in India lasts all day.

Until you come to India you have no idea how important rail travel is. In this enormous country travel is long and hard. Internal air routes are being privatised and the price of air travel is falling – but for most Indians the railways are a cheap and important part of everyday life. They are the quickest and, looking at the carnage on Indian roads, the safest form of transport.

As William Dalrymple puts it in The Age of Khali, the railways both created and destroyed the India of the Raj. British-built and every bit British in design, the construction of the Indian railways can be traced back to the decade of the 1850s. Within half a century British engineers and Indian labourers laid over 23,000 miles of track. You could take a train from beaches of southern Madras (now Chennai) to the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border. Today that journey would mean going through Pakistan and would still take well over two days, so enormous is this continent.

At 5.30am, Vadodara railway station is buzzing like a disturbed beehive. There are thousands of people in and around this place of travel and commerce. Whatever you want you can find it here. In a strange similarity with the UK railways, complaint is positively sought. Even the man selling eggs had a ‘complaint and suggestion’ book, as did C/T Patel the platform chemist, who advertised that he sold everything from fruits salts to chewable antacid anti-flatulent tablets, in assorted flavours including mint and orange. An official complaint book was available at the information desk and another on platform two.

Outside the station, shops and stalls are already doing a roaring trade. Freshly watered vegetables and fruit glisten in the early morning sun. The scent of flowers stops you in your tracks like a punch on the nose. Everybody is trying to make money. If you want your shoes cleaned, keys cut, a wet shave, neck massaged, locks and chains for your bike, clean knickers, pens and pencils…you’ve come to the right place.

If you’re hungry or thirsty look no further. There is fruit of every type and colour, nuts of every size, fresh coconut milk, ice cream, chai, Nescafe coffee. Every type of Indian food is available – the good, the bad and the ugly. And if you’re worried about eating too much, back in the station there are four free ‘check your weight’ machines.

Where you stand on the platform reflects your social position. Headloders, expensive suitcases balanced on their heads, head for the first-class a/c (air-conditioned) section. Under-employed headloders stand around the same area waiting to make their mad dash for the incoming trains. They dive on, fight their way through passengers trying to get off, in an attempt to convince the same people they have trampled on to pay them to carry their bags out of the station.

Near second class sit hundreds of rural workers; women with bright saris, others just dirty from weeks of hard toil in the fields of Gujarat. Soldiers carrying guns stand around as though battle is about to commence. India has 1.5million men and women who carry arms. The soldiers all seem to carry ancient British Lee Enfield rifles and even Second World War Bren-guns.

A group of Muslims are locked in deep conversation. Though this is an unashamedly Hindu country there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan, making up about 11 percent of the Indian population. The Muezzin cry from the Mosque can be heard in most Indian cities. Even in the village where I am staying, next to the Narmada river, the sound of the prayer leader cries out every morning and seems to carry down the Narmada Valley.

Vadadora is a city of some 1.5million people. It lies on the outskirts of the earthquake area that flattened parts of Gujarat earlier this year. Few tourists come here, and a white person stands out. I’m peering through the window of the Special Refund Office when an orange-coloured reflection appears behind me. From his garb I see that he is a Swami, a Hindu holy man. He wears no shoes, has designer specs, and when he speaks it’s a shock to hear the accent of the west coast of America. His name is Swami Joseph, and he hails from San Francisco.

Rather than flowers in his hair he wears beetroot coloured garlands round his neck and carries Vishnu in his soul. He is on a walking pilgrimage to collect money to build another temple to one of the many Hindu gods. He asks me whether a god walks with me; and when I suggest that I’m probably the only non-believer in the station, his thumbs-up sign indicates that I’m probably right.

The station seems like one big signpost. One hanging over the entrance reads, ‘We love Vadodora station. We promise to keep it clean’, and is complemented by dozens of ‘no spitting’ and ‘no spitting zone’ signs along the platform. Presumably these relate to the custom of spitting out paan – a red combination of leaves and betel nut, which Indian men chew incessantly. You find red stains on building walls and staircases and, if you don’t keep an eye on passing auto-rickshaw drivers, on your shoes.

More signs are strung along the platform. Two hands shaking – a greeting point; two rifles with crosses – no guns in this carriage; two tea cups – chai time; an enlarged U turned upside down with a B in the space, which looks like the back of a cow – I never worked out what that meant.

And there’s the animals. Dogs run wild; over on the other platform a farmer waits with his goats; and you have already met the cow. Hundreds of cows roam every Indian city and town, let out by farmers to eat the streets clean, and middle-class families feed them as the British feed the birds. Now meet the monkeys on the station roof, rats running between the lines, scrawny cats asleep on boxes, and the ubiquitous kite hawks – huge birds that drop out of the sky ready to pick up anything left lying around by the cows.

As I leave the station the mooing cow is being shooed through the exit. As news reaches India of Britain’s foot-and-mouth ‘epi-panic’ and the mass slaughter of hoofed animals, it strikes me this cow is very lucky. If this were Newcastle central station there would, by now, be an armed police response team in place, to dispatch the mad cow to pastures new – forever.

Kirk Leech is a contributor to Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

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