The Quiet and the Crowd

It had been a long and dirty day, and it was only 9 am.

We were standing on the first-class platform at Agra station in a sea of coated porters, chai sellers, pickpockets and families larger than the trains they were travelling in.

Already the serenity of yesterdays visit to the Taj Mahal with its flowing lines and perfect reflection was sinking to the depths of the reality of India. Life here is hard.

As foreigners we had afforded ourselves the luxury of a sleeper carriage for the 8-hour journey from Agra to Varanasi. At little over £30 the accommodations are nothing luxurious with a simple bunk, a small washbasin and a large window, but I was happy to escape the heat and the crowds and keen to be at ease.

Train travel in India is not only one of the great legacies left by the British Raj. It is an essential vein, vital to the livelihood of those who use it.

People layer themselves across dilapidated bunks, hanging through windows and sharing seats with strangers as they traverse miles and miles of dry Indian soil to build a better life.

For most of the train it was a day spent rotating the coveted door space and the precious fresh air.

I was travelling with two of my closest friends. They had never met and both now live abroad, yet as with all things real these things seldom matter.

Soon the romance of rail gave way to the gentle clicking of the tracks and a sense of home that only days like this can bring.© Natalie Dent

Station after station passed and before long we were out in the open farms and villages.

This is an India seldom seen in the books and the brochures.

There are no monuments, no crowds and no big cities.

The dust is tangible.

The children are younger than they appear.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

Hour after hour the world is filled with people going about their day. Shops are made from empty crates. Restaurateurs serve curries from little metal pots on the floor. Sacred cows roam the streets as equals. Men carry out their ablutions off the sides of the track.

© Natalie Dent © Natalie Dent

At each stop, food sellers are allowed to board the train as those at the doors jostle themselves around to accommodate the newcomers. Introductions are made, heads are wiggled and everyone smiles. The conversation flows like a stream through the chatter and the stories, and the sellers leave before they are accidentally swept up and carried away.

From time to time the calls of “Chai!” echo through the comfort of our cabin. Chai is a thick and sickly sweet tea made from milk, masala and spice. It’s served in tiny paper cups and warms me to the bones.

Rajesh, the chai seller, travels the route from Agra to Varanasi every day, only to board the next train and come back again. He has sold his 3p chai on this route for 27 years.

“Suffering,” he said through an unwavering smile, “suffering gives us life.”

Daylight faded quickly to rounds of fresh chai, delicious food in little foil containers, and the never-ending hum of the chatter in third class. I began to feel left out.

Despite the company of Andrew and Rebecca it had been a lonely day. Whilst we had sat in our little cocoon of wealth and privilege, those in the real world had shared their food with strangers as only the Indians can do. They had swapped their stories, grown close, slept along side one another and drank chai from little paper cups.

My rush to secure comfort by throwing money at the problem had sold me short. I had missed out on the opportunity to share my life with those around me, and have theirs shared with me.

We arrived into Varanasi five hours late and just in time to meet our guide Varun who immediately wanted to know all about us. How had we enjoyed the train?

“Nothing was as expected,” we laughed, “and we had to entertain ourselves the whole way,” my friends confessed as we stepped through the crowds of the homeless and the battered seeking shelter from the night in the station.

As we drove away I looked out through the open window.

I looked out across the sprawls of people, across the poverty and the broken, across the piles of cow dung. the cheap solutions and the big problems, and I couldn’t help but smile.

The people of India, through their simple joys and shared existence, are happy in ways that those of us who buy security can never be.

We are constantly moving from place to place seeking solitude, stillness and quiet, yet here, in this vast and dusty place of poverty there is contentment in the kindness we ignore.

In the chaos, there is calm.

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