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Highlights In The Shadows: 12 - Old Man On A Train

Owen Clement tells of an encounter with an old Indian scholar during a rail trip to Bangalore. For more chapters of Owen’s story click on Highlights In The Shadows in the menu on this page.

A short time after our trip to Calcutta we took the Madras Mail train from Kharagpur along the coast of the Bay of Bengal to visit Gran and Granddad in Bangalore.

Half-way through this trip, the train had pulled into a station in the middle of the night and an elderly Indian man clambered into our second-class compartment waking us. My parents and I had been asleep on our rolled out bedrolls on the three lower bunks. Gloria slept on her bedroll on the pull down bunk above Mum.

"Would the Baba mind if I sat on the end of his bunk, Sahib, I am too old to get on to the top one?" The old man spoke in very correct English as he put his hands together in a Namasta pose.

"No. It’s okay, I'll go on top and you can have this one." I said climbing out of the bunk and began rolling up my bedding. "Oh! No-no Baba," he said wagging his head,” Don't worry, I will just sit in this corner," pointing to one end of the bunk.

"That’s quite all right,'’ Dad said as he helped me unroll my bedroll onto the bunk above his, “You are very welcome to it."

After much reassurance the old man curled up in one corner of the bunk pulling his white woollen shawl around himself. As it was late, everyone, except me, was soon asleep. I have never been able to easily go off to sleep on trains, cars, ships or airplanes. That night, I lifted the small louvered window a crack beside my bunk and peered out at the moonlit landscape until eventually I too drifted off.

I was awake early, and after returning from my early morning wash in the adjoining tiny washroom, found our fellow passenger sitting up cross-legged where he had slept. I saw a small fine boned venerable looking man, dressed in a snowy white long-sleeved kurta and full length dhoti, his head swathed in an enormous turban. Bright dark eyes peered out of a pair of small gold-rimmed spectacles.

"Ram, Ram. Namasta." He said smiling at me, his hands clasped in supplication. I returned his greeting.

Dad had also washed and shaved. If or when the old man had done so I could not tell, however, he looked fresh and immaculate. Both men had been deep in conversation in Bengali. By picking out the occasional word or phrase I realized that they were discussing religion and philosophy. I discovered later, that our fellow passenger was a scholar connected to Rabindranath Tagore's ashram in Calcutta.

My mother had also freshened up and not understanding Bengali, sat reading. My sister and I amused ourselves with our Compendium of Games set.

Suddenly my father laughed out aloud; the old man had a merry twinkle in his eye.

"Listen to this," my father said inviting our fellow passenger to tell us his story, which he did, in very good English. This is an approximation of his story:

“On a previous journey, I shared a carriage with some young Anglo-Indian men who were on their way home after playing in a hockey tournament in Madras. I had a small chatty containing some sweetmeats wrapped in Gold Leaf. During the night these young rascals found the sweets and ate them. The next morning one of them said to me, ‘Good morning Baboo, what’s in the chatty Eh?' I, realizing what they had done, told them that I had just been to my brother’s funeral. And as we could not afford to cremate his body on the banks of the river Ganga, I had collected the fat from the burning corpse and used it in making the milk-based sweetmeats which I was now taking as an offering to the gods instead."

He chuckled when he described the rear ends of these young men lined up at the train windows with their fingers shoved down their throats trying to rid their stomachs of the 'awful' contents. Up to then I did not realize that these saintly looking men could have such a devilish sense of humour.

It was a very sad visit, as Gloria and I truly believed that this would be the last time we would ever see Granddad and Gran. Gran, whose culinary skills were second to none, made her delicious duck vindaloo for us to eat on our three-day train journey home. Being made with vinegar, we were able to eat it for the whole trip home without it spoiling.

© Clement 2006

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