Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Train Rides

Monday after work on the train, having left Jean Valjean on the road to Arras, I look up from my book (Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar from 1975, with hippies!) to think about India and train episodes I enjoyed there; and I observe the people about me, wires trailing from the ears of half of them, phone things in their hands. To my left, a young maybe Turkish man in a leather jacket with a Chinese dragon on the back is listening to a work for solo violin. I feel something shift: the plates of my tactile existence grind briefly and heave, stayed and balanced--for the moment--at relief.

Tuesday heading to work on the train, I write in my notebook for the first time in a week. Home life: so intervening! Family and friends and eating and theater; cleaning the house; petting cats; going on-line or napping; watching televised tennis or babbling over the healthcare debates: so time-consuming. Like hippies! Who ended up where? Dead from hepatitis. Inventing the i-Pod commercial.

One time in India on the train I was riding in 3rd class, some long trip between large destinations, and a young family--husband, wife, two little boys--took the seats facing mine. They were sweet; poor; spoke almost no English beyond the words required to ask all the personal questions that everyone asks there (Was I married? being foremost among these); all very thin and small. They offered me Indian sweets, from a small box they'd bought for their journey, probably an extravagance. I took one, maybe two if they insisted, and ate. Immediately upon swallowing whatever it was, something terrifically sweet, I remembered my Lonely Planet guidebook's warning about train theives who drug you with candy and make off with your possessions and money as soon as you've fallen into a drugged slumber. I'd given one of the sons an empty Altoids box and the other probably a pen and the sweets had been produced reciprocally; even so, it struck me, mightn't the whole thing have been planned? I was riding in 3rd class on a whim, had been enjoying the hot dusty breeze through the glassless barred windows. My companions were small and dark and did resemble Gypsies. They were poor.

I continued to sit there and smile, pleasantly, without language; continued to feel, towards this small, sweet family, a liking, really a fondness, inspired by their sweetness and kindness--by their charm. At the same time I prayed. I bargained with God. I said, I remember so well, that I would be much more careful here (there) after and wouldn't take candy from strangers ever again; I promised to stop being an idiot: Just get me, I begged God, to my next destination, and not in a drugged stupor, and with all my possessions intact. For many miles in Rajasthan I prayed this. The family rode the train not a great distance; at a station well before mine we exchanged sweet smiles and Namastes.

What would be funny, it just occurs to me now, is if whoever had sold them the knockout drops cheated them.

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