The train was over ten hours late by the time I joined the group on Platform One, where Train # 14006 from New Delhi to Varanasi was expected at any moment. It was 1:50 in the morning. An announcement rattled across the intercom, and although I have been learning as much Hindi as I can, I am far from understanding any official pronouncement. So, I scanned the faces of the other passengers, looking for signs of imminent arrival or further delay. A few seconds into the announcement, a young man nearby put his palms together and raised them to his head, smiling and laughing as he offered a prayer of gratitude. I, too, smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.
But, the joke ended up being on us. In a moment, a horn sounded, a beam of light appeared in the distance, and hundreds of people, grumbling and groggy-eyed, pulled themselves off the pavement to prepare for the train. And as one locomotive—and only a locomotive, no passenger cars—sped on by, most of us stood dumbfounded while a few people laughed full-bodied at the irony: ten hours of waiting for a sole locomotive to pass.
I am fast learning that those two attitudes—hands raised in gratitude and finding humor at every turn—as well as a hearty sense of adventure, are necessary companions in India.
I certainly lacked them hours earlier, when I didn’t see Train # 14006 on the large electronic screen at the New Delhi train station. I strode to the Enquiry Counter, showed my ticket, and was told the train was, at that time, eight hours late. Shocked and more than a little annoyed, I walked back to the waiting platform and grumpily sat down among the masses. How to pass eight hours?! I passed a few hours writing, reading, and watching the multitudes, but my bad mood stuck. Not until I took my cue from the rest did I begin to enjoy the adventure. I unfolded a few pieces of newspaper on the concrete floor, lay down with my head on my bag, and read until I fell into a contented sleep.
A few days earlier, I needed a similar sense of adventure. I had been working with Dr. Ashwin Dalvi to arrange a meeting with a jantar musician who lives in the countryside, but we were encountering problems. First was the tribal musician and countryside farmer’s sense of time. As Ashwin put it, when you have all the time in the world, there is no need to change your schedule for a rushed foreign researcher, or for anyone, really. Then, there was a death in the musician’s family, and the required period of mourning forbid him from entering his village’s temple, where the instrument was kept and must be performed, for thirteen days. But, Ashwin persisted. We had received a tentative commitment for Friday, but on Wednesday it was changed to Thursday, and when Thursday arrived neither that day nor the next were possible. So, the sense of adventure. I visited Jaipur’s Sun Temple, took two sitar lessons with Ashwin, and had a lovely overnight trip to Pushkar, all unplanned adventures. And, with Ashwin’s help, I will get the information about the jantar for my research, though not a personal meeting.
One of my auto-rickshaw drivers in Jaipur captured this state of mind perfectly. Making conversation soon after I met him, he asked if I had had any problems in India, and I complained about the train being crowded. “Ah, you must have good karma, if that is your only problem,” he smiled back at me, and when I droned on about the tightly-packed train, he cut me off, saying, “But, my friend, you are in India! Of course the train is crowded!” We had a good laugh at that one, mostly at my own expense.
Yes, I am in India, thorns and all. But thorns have roses, and in India the roses are typically glorious. When we finally boarded Train # 14006, a middle-aged man with limited English befriended me immediately and supported me when two others in my sleeper cabin tried to get me to change seats from the preferred one I had booked by the window. Then, 35 hours into my 37-hour excursion from Jaipur to New Delhi and finally Varanasi, when I was exhausted and starving, the same man bought me a pair of samosas, saying above my protests, “You are in my country, and you are welcome to my food.” The samosas were delicious, and though the gesture was small, it nearly brought tears to my eyes. India provides its share of frustrations, annoyances, and discomforts, but they are all ephemeral. With hands raised in gratitude and healthy senses of humor and adventure, the frustrations fade away, leaving those acts of kindness and a newfound sense of wonder.