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Ladies Only to Agra

Midnight in Gwalior

View Sydney to London 1964 on Ozac's travel map.

Sunday 1-11-1964

The afternoon of the 31st, we caught, with Marianne and the two Johns, a train for Satna. We only just caught it, having obtained concession passes at the last minute, but we did not buy tickets. We were caught and had to pay the full fare. Got to Satna at night, slept on the station and got the morning bus to Khajuraho. Saw all over. They are really a superb group of temples; they contain the most vivid and finely detailed sculpture I have yet seen. Long walks were involved, and the heat was extreme; so was the dust, but we passed through an interesting village.

The main temple was a beautiful piece of work, and it sat in perfect proportion on its podium, looking like some castle in fantasy. It was literally breath-taking. We slept at the circuit-house, (all five in a single room), and caught a bus for Harpalpur on the Monday morning.

Monday 2-11-1964

A fair bus trip, during which I thought a lot about present and future. I feel things building to a point of solid decision on some matters connected with my future. We arrived at Harpalpur, where we were to catch the train. We were all running short on rupees, could not cash a traveller’s cheque at the small bank and were becoming quite worried. Marianne and the American John (the kiwi returned to Calcutta) sold watches however, so we were able to move on. The others gave me 50 R for one of my traveller’s cheques. At 3 pm we caught a train for Jhansi. The night ahead was to be quite extraordinary.

Incident at Gwalior, in the middle of the night

Leaving Jhansi was a scramble, as the train was not a sleeper type and it was already crowded. Marianne got into the ‘Ladies Only’ compartment, the only one which was comparatively empty, and we three others hopped in as the train began to move. It seemed an excellent setup - plenty of space, the ladies did not mind, and it was completely shut off from the remainder of the carriage; we felt fortunate to find it, and bedded down for an expected fair night’s sleep. At 12.15 am the train arrived at Gwalior, and we all awoke sharply to loud shouts and banging on the door. The door was slowly opened by Marianne, with John behind her, ready to resist an onrush, but once the catch was slipped, no chance of that remained, and the next half hour was to be the strangest I have yet experienced. The pushing, yelling, animal like crowd fell in like a dam bursting; ‘Ladies Only’ meant nothing; porters with luggage, passengers with bundles and babies; men, women and children crushed through the narrow door in a single seething mass, and among all the chaos and confusion came perhaps the source itself. An elderly man was half carried, half dragged and pushed onto the train and laid on the seat formerly occupied by John. The smell of this wretched old man was foul. Ade and I had quickly retreated to the safety of the luggage rack and watched the scene from there. Within a few minutes the compartment had become a cage of animal-like beings, acting with no order at all, and the centre-piece was a dying man. An argument began. Apparently one female passenger wanted the old man removed, and his wife or daughter quickly protested. Then their respective males suddenly weighed in and loudly began a verbal fight which was so spontaneous in beginning and so seemingly violent in the confined space that it was quite terrifying.

It was to end just as abruptly however, as during the intense struggle among the living the old man quietly died, there on a grimy seat in a packed railway compartment. He was bundled out of the carriage with the same lack of ceremony as he had entered, along with his now grieving wife and family. The only reaction among the remaining crowd was for three people to move into the seat previously occupied by the dead man. Their obvious thought was “now we will have more room.” How strange these people are about life and death. Nothing might have occurred for all the difference it made to them, and this indifference was in me too until I pushed myself into thinking about it. The first death I have witnessed, and in such strange circumstances, caused no instinctive emotion whatever, not even shock. This fact disturbed me more than anything. While the people in the compartment tried to arrange themselves more comfortably, the body was laid out on the platform, and the wife and daughter began to wail a death chant. I watched the wife for a few moments. She was almost vomiting with grief as her whole soul was channelled into the chant over her dead husband. A child was handed to her, but she took it with a mechanical movement in her limp arms. These people I feel care nothing for their neighbours or their own kind, but within a family, all are one. This woman’s heart was torn in two when that old man died. The whistle drowned the chant, and the train moved slowly, quietly, and with seeming respect back into the night, while her passengers laughed and talked, perhaps of the incident, I don’t know. A position found, I fell eventually asleep, and awoke in Agra.

Posted by Ozac 23:03 Archived in India

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