When I went to book my train ticket from Mumbai to Bangalore, I had planned to buy 3AC class. This means an air-conditioned sleeper berth, with three tiers. However, the guy at the counter told me this was full, and I either had my choice of non-AC sleeper (in with the multitudes), or 2AC sleeper – more expensive, AC, with two tiers per compartment. I looked down at my bruises from the bus, and unhesitatingly booked a more expensive 2AC ticket.
Even though the train journey was 24 hours, I wasn’t concerned. I’d experienced the train food to know that it was fairly decent (speaking as a European – see the entry on Agra if you don’t know what I’m talking about), I had a great big book to read, my ipod was fully charged, and I was looking forward to some peaceful ‘alone’ time.
I made it to the station unscathed by the rip-off taxi drivers, and was pleased to see my train waiting there on the platform. Arming myself with lots of water, I found my carriage, and the porter told me immediately which seat I was in. At first I was impressed by his psychic abilities, until I looked at the list of passengers that is pasted outside every carriage, and saw that I was the only westerner in my carriage, so it didn’t take too much deduction to work out who I was.
I had my lovely window seat in the compartment to myself for most of the journey, so I busied myself reading, listening to music and generally daydreaming. Despite asking for an upper berth, the ticket man had booked me a lower berth and, at about 9pm, I realised that as there was no-one else there, I was just going to get in an upper berth and argue the toss when the other passengers got on.
Just as I was dropping off to sleep, the lights went on, the curtains were opened, and about 20 men came in; one of them sat down, and the others kept bowing in front of him, saying what an honour it was to be in his presence. I lazily opened one eye, and asked if he wanted the upper berth but he kindly insisted I stay put. Most of the men left the train before it pulled out of the station, bowing and scraping their way outside. I was intrigued, I admit, but not enough to put me off my rest.
Eventually there were only two men left – the esteemed one, and another who seemed to jump to his every command. The esteemed one got up to go to the loo, at which point the assistant jumped up, and said to me in a very high, excited voice, “He is the minister. A minister. He is a minister.” “Oh”, I said, distinctly unimpressed (I have to admit, I was more impressed by the presence of Tessa Jowell at the cricket, and took great delight in explaining her recent difficulties to my Australian friends). “The finance minister. He is a minister”. He started to grab random people who were wandering through the carriage, “That man is the finance minister”. By now, he was starting to remind me of Sebastian off little Britain, the man whose love for the minister is so great it borders on obsession. He got quite annoyed with me because I wouldn’t get out of bed but I figured, hey, he’s the minister, but is he as famous as I am in Jaipur? I think not.
I managed to drop off to sleep ok, sung into dreamland by the music on my ipod. I’m actually starting to think it’s a bit psychic. When I’d first get on the bus in Udaipur (before I realised the true horror), we’d got out into the countryside and I was lying looking out of the window up at the sky, and it randomly played “Daytripper” followed by “Don’t fence me in”. Now, after I discovered this man’s identity, the first song that came on was “Taxman”. I had to stifle a giggle.
The next morning, he was very interested in me, in British politics, in my Lonely Planet book on India, and what I was doing in Bangalore. I showed him the address of the place I was going to, the place that would be my home for the next month, and he didn’t recognise it, so gave me his card and wrote his personal mobile number on it, saying “If you have any trouble here, you must let me know immediately”.
Pulling into Bangalore station, I showed my expertise by negotiating a low rate for an autorickshaw to bring me out to the house. It was the most lovely, reassuring feeling when, pulling up to the front door, one of the students here immediately checked that the amount I was paying the taxi driver was ok, and I wasn’t being ripped off.
It’s the most peaceful place I have been to in India, with beautiful gardens, restful rooms and, most importantly, the most friendly, welcoming people it’s possible to imagine. That night, as they gave me a garland round my neck, showed me a display they’d made wishing me a “Hearty Welcome to India”, and sang me a welcome song, I found it hard to believe I’d been here less than a day; rarely have I felt so much at home, so soon.
I don’t think I’ll be needing that mobile number.