Whoever said “hard travel makes you culturally tolerant” never travelled Sleeper Class on an Indian train for more than 12 hours. If they had they would know that culturally tolerant is not the by-product of an overnight trip that makes you create new profanities to throw at the passengers who feel nothing of shouting across compartments, watching movies on high volume or talking loudly on their cellphones, no matter the hour, no matter how many people are trying to sleep on the 8 bunks beside them. Even the chai guy is not a shy guy at 5am. If one person in the carriage wants chai on demand, you can bet the other 300 are going to hear about it. I have had women standing next to my bunk shouting at each other at 2am, oblivious to my head shaking, deep sighs and moaning that is a few decibels off screaming (I have dreams of reaching a pitch that would burst eardrums and nightmares that the result would end in even louder communications).
Do you want to know what’s even more frustrating? You can’t be angry with the locals. You know that space and privacy are not common-place at these levels or in a country of one billion people. Using your “inside voice” (as my friends with kids tell me) is not a concept either used or understood at the sleeper class level. They wouldn’t budge if I did the same to them while sleeping. It’s the Indian experience in its truest form – how you can go from near violent clashes with your bunkmates to sharing their tiffin tin of delights just a few hours of sunshine later. “Incredible India” (as the tourism slogan goes.) Indeed.
Sleeper Class should be compulsive training for all monks and nuns, punishment for all criminals and sex fiends and obligatory research for all social anthropologists. I don’t mind the “which country?” question and answer sessions. It lasts a few minutes and sets a friendly tone. I am happy to tune out the “chai chai pani pani biryani samosa” procession. It’s a buffet of delicious melodies that can have a rhyme and rhythm of their own (I hear charming noodles not chow mien). I can fend off the insistent eunuchs who demand and sometimes command money from their audience. I can balance my books and check my guilt at the procession of maimed, lamed and shamed beggars that hop on and off at every station. But my diplomatic eyes come undone at “that man”…
That man who wants to hear his English spoken at any cost (usually the language’s)
That man who ignores your agenda
Your position by an open window alongside a speeding train
That man who wants to touch your things
You pick up your camera. Now he wants to see it.
You read your book. Now he wants to read it, aloud, like a child on musical appreciation day.
Just listen how beautifully he plays his instrument in English minor.
Unreserved seating is another interesting phenomena. You usually come on your 6-seat bunk and count more heads than beds. Hmm. I wonder if half of these people are have unreserved seating, ie they wait for the conductor to come around to give him baksheesh in exchange for finding them a seat. Somewhere else. Until then, it’s a cosy acquaintance for everyone not involved.
And here’s how 5 ways you can survive it, or at least keep your sense of humour in tact…
The key is to go into “sensory shut down”.
- Silicone earplugs/ipod
White noise, any noise, is preferable to the night sounds of sleeper class, which always includes shouting, talking, babies screaming, men snoring, cellphones ringing and singing. Go silicone and go deep. If you can buy those expensive ones that are made to fit your ears and tune out different sound frequencies, you’re probably not going to be travelling cheaper sleeper now are you?
- Eye masks
See no evil, revenge no evil is my motto. You don’t want to see the perpetrators of your torture nor their various methods, like switching on the light above. Go deep and go dark.
- Tiger balm
I hope for your sake you are not in the first compartment by the toilets. Even if you are deeper in, the smells of the public pits have a way of finding your bed. And don’t forget that the railway lines are the most popular ablution spots, which is how you will know for sure that you are stopped at a station. Smear a little tiger balm under your nose or add some perfume to a scarf and cover your nose. It helps.
- Extra blankets and toe socks
Sounds stupid I know but if you are travelling mid to north of India, it gets cold at night. Keeping warm is essential to staying calm. If you wake up because you are cold, you probably won’t fall asleep again thanks to the noise and activity. So staying asleep is key. Toe socks are great because you can slip into your sandals when going to the bathroom so you don’t have to find and tie your big shoes.
- Recognising the signs
When you smell Dettol, get your toiletry bag ready because it’s a sign that the toilets have just been cleaned (or rinsed). Also, trains run late so don’t just rely on the time the conductor gave for your arrival station. Ask the name of the station before your stop and started preparing your bags when you see it. Some stations are more of the “push through the crowds and jump off before the train starts moving” kind of station while others are great for sunning yourself, stretching your legs and buying some new local delicacies (but always samosas and chai).
pic: ablutions can get pretty shitty after a few hours.
Musing on how Incredible India really is.