Nonfiction

Border Crossing: Mithila Express

31 October 2012

This piece is a continuation of Border Crossing: Nepal to India which appeared in edition six.

After an easy exit through Nepalese border security, my fiancée Jess and I are confronted immediately by the complexity of India. On entry into Raxhaul in north-east India we are dragged into an immigration office by four rotund men clad in white, official looking uniforms. The room is shrouded in a cloud of sharp incense, hiding stacks of ancient newspapers. We are directed to sit at a dust-covered table in the middle of the room.

“Passports,” the largest of them commands. He spots our nationality and turns to me.

“Your batsman, Ricky Ponting, is not playing so well,” he declares, as if I am responsible for the Tasmanian’s lack of form.

I holdback a witty response.

“You must pay immigration fee,” the official insists, and pauses to think. “200 rupees each.”

Jess, savvy to the ways of this country, politely agrees and requests a receipt. There is an awkward pause as if this question has never been asked before.

“No no no, you don’t need receipt,” the official responds.

Jess’ manoeuvre pays off as the man and his now-nervous white clique form an entourage and walk us into the centre of Raxhaul, to make sure the ‘fees’ are not mentioned later at government checkpoints.

Raxhaul is not the greatest introduction to India. In fact, it might just be the worst. The apocalyptic town is distinctly un-Indian, lacking in colour and life. Abandoned scaffolds encase decrepit grey buildings. Women, the vibrant heart of Indian society, are nowhere to be seen. Instead hordes of paan-chewing men drown the street, spitting red glos onto the ochre ground. The India I envisaged is restored when I see a child playing cricket, until I realise he is alone, bowling into an unmanned, stumpless void. He runs after the ball, doubles, and bowls back to where he began, repeating this solitary ceremony over and over. This hollow action is far more haunting than the skeletal structures of the township.

With a not-quite-heartfelt goodbye to the officers we make our way to Raxhaul station where our train to Kolkata, the Mithila Express, will depart in four hours. We have plenty of time. A couple of hours pass in a haze of accelerating heat. People rush comically from platform to platform in search of their mysterious track-jumping trains. A Rajasthani man and his three wives dressed respectively in green, burgundy and orange squat on the floor a little further up from us.

In our daze we do not realise that all station announcements are in Hindi. This is one patch of the glove that has not yet been invaded by the English idiom. With an hour until our departure I saunter over to the ticket office, hand over my boarding pass (in English and wait. The man looks at the only symbols he can decipher: Kolkata. He points us back in the direction of Platform 1 where we happen to have already made camp.

Secure in this information I wander thirstily to the snack-stand. I’m parched and attempt to buy some paani (water). I fumble for 15 rupees through a sea of nepalese rupiya, US and Australian dollars until I locate the old, tattered notes from Jess’ previous stay in India. We only have 180 rupees until we reach Kolkata in 24 hours. There is not an ATM or money exchange in sight.

45 minutes pass and a royal-blue train arrives called the Kolkata Express. The expected Mithila Express is no where to be seen. Our names are not on the second-class seating list–a sense of dread consumes me. My dehydrated head is pounding rhythmically fuck India! I want to go back to Nepal.

We board the second-class carriage, where almost immediately a pedantic and portly Indian youth informs us that this is his berth. We try to explain the situation to him. He looks at our tickets for a long minute, before solemnly informing us that the Mithila Express departed hours ago from platform eight. I tell him we will move down one.

“You must board your train. This is not your train,” he replies.

I look at him in astonishment. Our train is 250 kilometres away from us buddy! A more humane elderly man overhears our debate and intervenes. He has the conscientiousness and kindness of a person who wants to present their country well.

“Hey, this is just a misunderstanding. These things happen. Go into passenger class for now. If you have trouble with the inspector there, bring him to me and I will deal with him,” he explains.

He directs us to passenger class and tells us he will return to check on us.

We cramp into this sticky prison on wheels. The metal surfaces burn the skin like a car seatbelt in summer. The pedantic youth stumbles into the lower-class carriage looking more out of place than us. Breathlessly, after making intense calculations, he exclaims that we can catch the Mithila Express at a hub station, four hours from now. The window to jump trains however will be only five minutes. Just when I thought the tension was high enough, he adds this Bollywood beauty: “That is also the stop where the inspectors will board the train.”

Opposite us is a group of students, who, though eavesdropping, piece together our drama. One of them turns confidently, speaking in clear, fluent English.

“What is the problem?”

Over the next few hours their group adopts us, sharing Cheetos, bantering about South Park and discussing social issues such as the caste system. No matter where you are from you will consume American food and popular culture. I get to talking to ZeRaj and Xulian about hip-hope from Kanye to Lupe. Jess talks to the women of the group about how I proposed to her. I feel like I am back in Australia.

The hours pass by breezily, which is remarkable considering the extreme heat and smell of shit wafting through the cabin. We arrive at the anticipated hub station and spot our train across two sets of tracks gearing to steam away. The pedantic youth and the humane man from the upper-class rush in to prompt us into action, yelling in harmony.

“Go, go, go! You can make it!”

We jump out, bags flailing all over the place, pens and coins falling out of pockets. We cross the platform but there is no bridge to cross over the tracks. Unexpectedly Xulian, in his baggy pants and 50 Cent cap is right behind me–my gangster guardian. He instructs us to jump down onto the tracks and climb the train.

“That’s your coach right there!”

Jess and I look at each other with glittering Bollywood eyes. What ensues is not so much a leap of faith, but of filth. We land in puddle of green-black ooze and stumble through the side-door into the respectable second-class carriage. There we stand, two white lunatics in front of a coach full of astonished and frightened people: moneyless, out of breath and stained by toxic residue.Breaking the silence, Xulian projects his voice across the tracks to spell out his Facebook name. But there we are, finally aboard the Mithila Express.

A suited inspector climbs aboard and barks, “What is going on?”

I hand him our tickets with a shaking hand. He looks at them and retreats to discuss the matter with the other inspectors. The train begins to pull away from the station. After an interminable pause, all the while being stared at by an audience of 60, the suit returns to notify us that these tickets are void because we did not board the train at Raxhaul. I look at Jess with exhaustion and prepare for another adventure.


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