THE RED-COATED luggage wallah wedges my bag under seat number 23C. I push a folded one hundred rupee note into his rough brown hand and he is off.
The train shunts forward; we’re on our way.
Seated, I catch my breath, lean my head back against the green formica wall, close my eyes and tote up the number of hours I’ve been travelling. Four from home to departure, another nine in the air, four from Delhi airport to the train station and, all the time it took, to my bewilderment, standing in a long queue of Indian women and men who continually elbowed me out of their way to be told, when finally I made it to the glass-fronted ticket counter, to find a different queue; one for Freedom Fighters, ex-Army and non-Indian women. And still there is another nine hours to go. That’s twenty-six. Yet, I’m not tired. Rather, my senses are alive to a somewhat alien, dirty, colourful, noisy and odorous world.
Six months before this trip I’d written a funding proposal for Mr Lakshmipathy’s charity to support the training of impoverished women villagers to grow mint and, to both our amazement, it won a grant; my first. Now I go to meet some of the women who grow the mint and turn it into essence from which they generate a small income. I’ve been told someone will meet me when I arrive in Lucknow.
With more noise than relief, an overhead fan whirrs at a frantic pace and stirs the hot, humid air. Between the underside of my thighs and the non-absorbent vinyl seat, my clothing is saturated.
It is my first time in India and I can’t quite believe it. I’m finally living my dream, working on my own terms doing what I have always wanted to do. It’s almost too good to be true and, it occurs to me, had I remained married, it would have been impossible. Too many commitments to too many people and circumstances would never have allowed it. Not that I became unmarried to achieve this other life. That’s another story. But it is true: even if the opportunity had presented itself for me to leave my husband and children, even for a short period, to go off to work in a foreign land to fulfil my dreams, I could never have done it. I might have taken up other opportunities, but never that one.
I open my eyes to find the man seated opposite staring at me. He doesn’t look away as I catch his gaze. To distract him and myself, I get out my book, a banana and an orange, and proceed to peel and eat the fruit while I look between the iron bars that span the open window. Nothing out there but mile after mile of open, flat, treeless land, a sandy sea of plastic bags snagged on the remains of bushes and tree stumps stripped, presumably, by villagers for fuel. Not wanting to add to the devastation, I wrap the peelings in a tissue and place them under my seat until I can find them a more suitable home.
‘Can I dispose of that?’ asks the man opposite, as he points to the package.
‘Thank you,’ I say, as I bend to pick it up and hand it to him. He immediately throws it out through the window.
In frustration, I say, ‘That was the very thing I did not want to do.’
His voice sharp with authority, he asks, ‘Why not?’
‘We would be travelling through a rubbish dump, if everyone did that.’
‘We are anyway, so what does it matter?’
‘It matters because people need to take responsibility for their own rubbish.’
‘It’s too late now,’ he says.
I grab my book, open it up and attempt to read. I want to make the point that conversation with him is no longer relevant. My eyes make it to the end of the page when, without warning, he whips the book from my hands.
He turns it over to look at the cover and reads ‘The…God…of…Small…Things.’
I stare at him in surprise. ‘Can I have it back, please?’
He hands it over and asks, ‘Are you religious?’
‘You ask very personal questions.’
‘Well, are you?’
His persistence is irritating and, in an attempt to ward him off, I say, ‘The book isn’t about religion; it’s more about the human spirit.’
‘Are you married?’ he asks.
The woman sitting alongside him, watchful to this point, raises her eyebrows at me; she’s on my side.
A choice is on offer.
I can answer this man’s probing questions or be rude to him. I want to be rude but, really, he’s just a curious man with an abrupt manner. To be intentionally rude to him would be bad mannered, if not exhausting. After all, I am a foreigner in an unfamiliar land.
‘I was once,’ I say, thinking what a long time ago that was; another lifetime, in fact.
‘Your husband, he died?’
‘No,’ I say, with an unintended sigh, ‘I divorced him.’
‘How old are you?’
‘That’s my secret.’
He looks at me as if he doesn’t comprehend secrets, and shuts up.
This little inquisition has left me tired. Seeking relief, I turn my eyes on the woman alongside him. Reaching into a large bag, she pulls out a long series of shiny steel containers, one attached on top of the other.
I know about these; together they form a tiffin.
She covers the seat between her and the man with a large square of tartan fabric, undoes each pot one from the other, places them on the fabric, then looks at me. ‘Please, madam, you must eat,’ she says. ‘And you, too, sir.’
‘Madam, I have my own food,’ he says, as if to not have his own food would suggest he was a single man, a status that would demean him in some way.
‘Thank you,’ I say, ‘you’re very generous, but I have fruit.’ For a novice of India like me, to peel a banana or an orange, knowing that the fruit within is untouched and clean, is healthy and safe. Unwashed thin-skinned fruit or vegetables or even washed fruit and vegetables cannot be guaranteed.
‘No, no. Fruit is not good food. You must eat,’ she says, as she proceeds to pile a little white plastic dish with rice and dahl on top of which she places a chapati.
It is the chapati I will find most difficult. With my right hand I know I must tear off a piece without using my left hand (to touch food with that hand is taboo) then I need to wedge that piece into a little V-shape which I can use to scoop up the rice and dahl. I’ve had little practise prior to this but the food makes it to my mouth without a dribble. It’s warm and not too spicy.
‘Thank you, it’s delicious,’ I say. ‘You’re a good cook.’
‘My daughter’s cook,’ she says, with a corrective tone. ‘I was visiting my daughter and grand-children.’
‘Where do you normally live?’ I ask.
‘At my school in Kanpur.’
The man’s dark eyes flash from me to her.
‘Your school?’ I ask.
‘Yes, it is a school I created for girls, after my husband died. He was a doctor and I was twenty-three years old with two small daughters. That way, we had a home and I could educate my girls.’
Dressed in a simple shalwar kameez of tiny black and white check, I suspect she’s around sixty years old; she has a soft, full face, the face of a Muslim, I’m sure, and long iron-grey hair caught up at the back with a generous sprig of sweet-smelling jasmine. An elegant woman.
‘My parents educated me well and I wanted the same for my daughters. Without education, we women are nothing. It’s why, along with my paying families, I wanted to help some girls from families who could not afford their schooling.’
‘How did you do that?’ I ask.
‘Near my school, there are two tribal villages, one with a woman sarpanch. After I shared with her my idea, she talked to her neighbouring village leader and they agreed they would select five girls from the most impoverished families in each of their villages.’
‘How generous,’ I said, with genuine admiration.
‘It’s my small way of trying to help girls catch up, if not overtake, the boys. If they don’t, they’ll never have the opportunity to be equal. Village girls know only how to sign their name with a thumb print.’
‘And when they leave school…?’
‘I have a primary school but, for good students, I try to find sponsorship to cover costs of their books and uniforms for high school. Otherwise, their parents, themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty, marry them off to have one less mouth to feed. Even if these girls don’t make it through high school, at least they have a better chance of marrying a boy that has also been to school. That makes their future a little more secure.’
From the corner of my eye, I catch the man, whom I’d observed to eat three plump golden samosas, throw his oily newspaper wrappings out of the window. He has hung on her every word.
For a short time we three sit in silence. The man, I hope, like me, has been filled with respect for this gracious yet formidable woman. And, just like the man, I continue to be curious: why has such an attractive and independent woman not remarried? I put the question to her.
The man turns his head to watch and wait for her answer.
‘Oh, no, that’s not possible,’ she says.
His eyes widen with interest.
‘Why not?’ I ask.
‘Only single women can marry.’
‘That seems unfair,’ I say, thinking of Mr Lakshmipathy and his three marriages, ‘your men get to marry more than once.’
‘There is one rule for women and one for men.’
How true, I think, but before I can speak, the man flashes his black eyes at her and, in a loud voice, says, ‘Women are not equal to men.’
With calm, she gathers up the empty tiffin containers and, without a trace of hostility in her soft voice, says: ‘What rubbish you men sometimes speak!’ A slight smile of tolerance dances on her full lips.
I desperately want to argue his point with him until he truly understands that women and men are indeed equals but women have been discriminated against in law and in practice over the ages by men like him, but this man will never concede defeat.
As the train pulls into Agra, and my travel companion gathers her belongings, I say to her, ‘Thank you for sharing your lunch with me; and for our little talk.’
My watch tells me: seven more hours to go. I pick up my book, find the right page and feel my eyelids droop.
As my mind drifts, I think of the woman who shared her food. How would I have felt if, at twenty-three, my husband had died and left me with two small children? Even if I’d had the funds, would I have had the creative and educational know-how to have done what she did? I doubt it. At twenty-three, I was not married nor particularly educated. I’d married at twenty-six and learned much from my older, well-educated husband who’d traveled widely and knew much of the world. My life as his wife, as step-mother to his two daughters and as mother to our son, enriched my world. Marriage broadened my horizons, made me a more creative, loving and considerate human being. Yet I had to take advantage of the government offering free entry to university, before I had the intellectual confidence to seek an independent working life. When my marriage collapsed, my world collapsed. It took some years to regain my equilibrium, to pick up the reins of my independence and become the working woman I wanted to be.
By definition, the woman opposite was from a middle-class family; nothing less than a private education would have qualified her for marriage into a family that had raised a son to become a doctor. Despite the tragedy of her loss, at twenty-three, with inheritance enough, she was well on the way to being equipped to becoming her independent self. All she needed was the tenacity, courage and determination to achieve her unexpected goal.
I did, too, only it took me much longer.
As the train makes its way into Lucknow station and I struggle to pull my bag out from under the seat, the man opposite insists he does it for me. Part of me wants to be obstinate and persist with the struggle if only to demonstrate that I’m independent and strong enough, but I sense this is his way of making amends, proving that he has the capacity to be a gentleman, no matter whether the sexes are, in his mind, equal or unequal. His gallantry has the effect of softening his earlier approach. On the other hand, he might be trying to prove to me that men and women really aren’t equal. Either way, I let go the struggle.
‘Thank you very much,’ I say, as he pulls the bag free.
It is true, women are not always as physically strong as men but that doesn’t make them any less equal. But it’s too late for that debate now.
Goodbye, sir,’ I say.
Not unlike a kewpie doll, his head wobbles a ‘Goodbye’ at me.
In the few precious minutes that the train remains at the station, I am caught in a great crush of people struggling to get off the train while hordes of people strain to get on. We stagger from the weight of our luggage and the shunting of the train, our moist flesh and clothing pressed into one another. Outside, loud messages in Hindi and over-accented English screech that the train is about to depart. Panic fills the air. My bag gets wedged in the tide and I’m unable to move. My fear is that I will not be able to get off. The train suddenly jolts, bodies shift and I lurch forward and out onto the platform.
It’s abuzz with loudspeaker noise, people, their luggage, cows, sleeping dogs. The stench of human waste rises up from the railway track. Lying at the back of the platform, I see what can only be a body covered with an old sari, a clear plastic bag linked to a thin tube sticking out from under the cloth. It’s a golden-coloured urine-filled colostomy bag. My heart and stomach lurch.
I look around for a sign of familiarity.
Who am I meant to meet?
Then it surfaces: I don’t need to find him; he’ll find me.
There can’t be many lone white-faced women here in the heart of Uttar Pradesh.
Judith Crosland is an Australian living in London, and a recent writer. An invitation to write her first book, Murder on HMAS Australia (2016) by a mutual friend of the protagonist, led her to join a writers’ group. She has since published Life Without You (2017), a personal story in which she explores the many lessons learned from love and loss. She is currently writing a book of Indian short stories, of which Marriage is one. When she is not writing, Judith works as a sociologist in London and in India. She resides part of each year in France.