At Mathura station, a man in a neatly ironed black shirt got in.
“Namaste,” Vik said to him. The man’s nose twitched—as though in response to the American accent. “I am as brown as any Indian,” Vik said, “but born in America.”
“This seat and the others here,” the man said in English, “are ours.”
“Oh, I am sorry.” Vik got up from the window seat he had been sitting in, and checked his ticket again: number 6. The compartment, which was open to the aisle on one side, consisted of two bench seats facing each other: and seat 6 was on the aisle end of the bench. He moved.
Two red-shirted porters brought in various bags, canteens, suitcases. They carried them in the Indian fashion: suit-cases piled atop turbaned heads, a hand holding them in place; bags slung over shoulders, and over the crook of elbows; and any free hand grasping smaller bags. Women and children followed the luggage and the porters, and now every inch of space in the compartment was occupied. There was luggage on the seats, on the floor, everywhere. When the train moved, the family settled down to lunch, and there was the smell of puris and of chutney.
Vik stood up and went out into the passageway behind the compartment. Here, there was a sink against the wall, with a grimy mirror above it, on which were drop-sized stickers of old bindi. He could picture an Indian woman there, in the morning, or in the evening of a long journey, removing the bindi from her forehead, sticking it up on the mirror so she could wash her face, and then putting on a new sticker, leaving behind the old one. And next to the sink was the coach door, which was kept open even in transit, the heavy iron door like that of an old safe, letting in the air and the smells of India. A boy sat there now, legs dangling over the open doorway, clutching the handrails, his thick hair blowing in the wind. He turned to look at Vik. He would be about six or seven, his face chubby for a street-child, wearing brown shorts that were fairly clean and not in tatters, but faded in color. The boy reminded Vik of himself as a child: the hair, the large brown eyes. Vik’s childhood nickname was Dittu–so that’s how he thought of him.
Dittu’s eyes were red from the dust. Vik felt an urge to give the boy his sunglasses, but did not, and instead stood and watched the sugarcane fields as they passed by. And a little down the line, near Gwalior station: a medieval fort atop a cliff-bound hill, with numerous domes, the sandstone walls circling the entire hill; and looking at the cliffs and the dusty ochre of the slopes, the same color as the walls, it seemed as though the fort were not constructed, but somehow grew on the earth.
Apart from the man, there was his wife, and three boys, aged about five, ten, and fourteen, and a grandmother. The wife wore a sari the green of a macaw. She sat cross-legged on the seat, her mouth blood-red from chewing betel leaves, head veiled in purdah.
From a cardboard box, the man served bite-sized, diamond-shaped pieces of halwa carrot cake into teak-leaf plates, and handed them to the children, who squealed with delight. Unlike the halwa Vik remembered from Indian restaurants in the US, this one had a rougher texture to it. Perhaps the carrots were hand-grated.
In spite of her veil, Vik could tell the wife was not the mother of the boys–she looked far too young. Then he heard the boys call the man Maman–Uncle.
“Kanhaiyya!” Uncle said to the fourteen-year-old, raising his hand. “You will get a slap.” It was unclear to Vik what the boy had done. He recalled from his reading that the name Kanhaiyya was an endearment for Lord Krishna.
Uncle pushed a leaf-plate of halwa into Vik’s hands. “Take it,” he said.
“Thanks, but no,” he replied politely.
“Did you have something to eat?”
“Yes–I just had an energy bar.”
“Kya?” said Uncle.
“It is like a chocolate,” said Kanhaiyya. “It has an entire meal in it.”
Uncle snorted. He commenced eating the halwa with noisy relish.
“Your English,” Vik said to Kanhaiyya, “is very good. I am impressed. How did you learn to speak so well?”
Kanhaiyya looked at him, and then at his uncle. Without replying, he smiled and continued eating.
“You are not Indian,” Uncle said to Vik then, almost accusingly. “Not Indian,” he repeated, still chewing loudly.
“I am genetically an Indian.” Genetically Indian. He’d never referred to himself like that before. Vik—full name Vikram Seecharan—could always claim to be an Indian in America, but not here. He could not even say that his parents were from India. His ancestors had left the country three generations ago. On his father’s side, his great-grandfather had immigrated to the West Indies, settling in Guyana, and his grandfather to America. On his mother’s side, the route was India to Kenya to America. They had no connections left in India. “I grew up in America.”
Having finished eating, Uncle got up, crumpled the leaf plate in his hands, and threw it out of the window, through the iron bars. He collected the plates of the others and discarded them too. Vik felt he was not on a train, but in the family’s home: Kanhaiyya and the boys sat beside him, with Sarvani at the window; and Grandmother and Uncle were on the other bench seat, Grandmother by the window, and Uncle opposite Vik. But the boys frequently moved to sit by Grandmother, playing with the free end of her sari, or her bangles.
“I am a businessman, jewelry business,” Uncle said, sitting down again, drinking from his canteen. Vik, with his long legs, was mindful of not bumping knees with Uncle, and turned a little to the side. “You should travel in First Class, not in Sleeper Class. There is no AC here, the bathrooms are Indian-style, it is dirty, the beggars will pester you, any number of irritating things.” Uncle put the canteen away, and rubbed his hands over his thighs. Every finger of his right hand had a ring on it, except the thumb. “We travel like this because we are Indians—we are used to it.”
“I am an Indian too,” Vik murmured, sipping from his water bottle.
“No, you are not,” said Uncle.
“I will be soon. And I wanted to travel the way most Indians travel.”
“You will be an Indian soon?” Uncle laughed, and started to shiver his legs. “How is that possible?”
“I intend to settle down in India.”
“Why?” asked Uncle, looking at him with wide eyes.
Vik laughed. “Because I love India.”
“If you do,” Uncle said, “enjoy India from far away. Visit now and then. You don’t need to live here.”
“I wanted to get back to my roots.”
“You are not a plant,” said Uncle seriously.
They had stopped at Jhansi station. Over one of the station signs, people hung lunch boxes and thermoses, obscuring the station name in Hindi, Urdu, and English. On the platform, a slender, striking young woman in a yellow sari and veil stood near a banner, a luggage-sack of pink fabric at her feet, the banner advertising a college on Gwalior Road. He pictured once more the fort he had seen near Gwalior station, and remembered Gwalior and Jhansi from Stanley Wolpert’s India, which he had begun reading, although he had read it before, many times over.
“America is not exactly heaven, you know,” he said to Uncle, when the train started moving again. “You won’t believe if I told you how it really is over there.”
“Tell me, how is life like in America?” asked Uncle, smiling, fingers smoothing his thick eyebrows.
“Sometimes it can be quite gloomy.”
“Especially in the winter. Especially in a place like Chicago, where I am from.”
“I know in America,” he said, “people eat frozen food.”
“We buy frozen food.” Vik smiled. “We do heat it up before eating. But winter in Chicago–sometimes, on really cold days, we bundle up so completely, only the nose is exposed. When we come back from grocery shopping, our noses become red, and we feel like the skin would peel off.”
His wife whispered something to Uncle.
“He is talking about how life is like in Am-reeka,” he told her in Hindi. “It is so cold there that noses freeze, and when they come in from the cold, they shed skin from their noses, like snakes.”
“See, Sarvani?” the grandmother said to the wife. “It is a good thing that Am-reeka groom did not see you, after all.”
“Ma!” Uncle groaned.
“It is good to talk about things, not good to keep them cooped up inside.” The grandmother turned to Vik and said, “Sarvani still thinks she missed an opportunity when that engineer boy came to her village, looking for a bride.” Sarvani pulled the veil over her face. “She had chicken pox then, and couldn’t be displayed.”
“Nevertheless,” Uncle said to Vik, with a wave of his hand, as if to sweep the women out of the conversation, “you should live in a place that will reward you well for your labors. Here, you work and work, and get little to show for it at the end.” He shook his head. “What will you do for a living?”
“I will teach English.”
“But teaching is the worst profession to go for,” he said. “Teachers get paid nothing in India.”
Vik smiled again.
“That’s the case everywhere.”
“Are you married?” Uncle asked abruptly.
“No. I graduated from college only a year ago.”
“What did you study?”
“Indian Studies and English.”
“Indian Studies? What’s that?”
“You study about India,” Vik replied, shrugging his shoulders.
Uncle shook his head. “You should have consulted me before choosing your studies. I would have steered you towards Business or Law or the Sciences.”
“Money is not important to me,” Vik said.
Uncle patted him on the back. “Listen, you are not married, you don’t yet know the meaning of money–the meaning of money in India. In a poor country like this, you are not well-off even if you are in a high-paying profession.”
“I hear things have changed for the better. I hear India has changed.”
“That’s all newspaper stuff, don’t believe it. Nothing has changed!” He yawned and stretched. “They say that in America, a sweeper gets fifteen lakh rupees per year? Is that true?”
“If you convert the currency, I guess so. But of course sweepers are by no means well-off.”
“Fifteen lakh rupees in a year for a sweeper!” Uncle chuckled. “It’s all over for me, but I am hoping to be able to send my son to the States. That is, if I ever have a son.” He looked at Sarvani, who frowned back at her husband and once again pulled the veil over her eyes.
For no apparent reason, the train slowed and stopped. Vik went out to the open coach door again, eager to look at the countryside. Dittu and the others had left, and hitching up his shorts, Vik sat in Dittu’s place, clutching the handrails, his sandaled-feet resting outside on the coach-steps, the knees bare and exposed to the sun and air. They had stopped by a grove of khajoor date-palms: the trees not on dry land but trunks submerged to the roots in a monsoon pool, dates hanging in bright red bunches, reflecting dully in the new, muddy water.
A cell phone rang. Uncle spoke into it with a rasping voice. Then he started making a bed in an upper berth, aided by the five-year-old. He spread out an orange floral bed-sheet, and the five-year-old, who had a bowl-haircut, held the other end. Vik noted the sleeping arrangements in store for them all. The seats folded up to form eight sleeper berths in all, dorm-style setup on three levels, lower, middle, and upper. He would get an upper berth, and a lower one would be empty.
Uncle got off the phone, and shouted, “Magazine hai?” Someone tossed him one, and he lay down reading. From another upper-berth, the bowl-haircut boy shouted: “Kanhaiyya! Kanhaiyya!” His brothers ignored him.
Kanhaiyya asked the grandmother, “What are you listening to? Jagjit Singh?”
Vik could hear faint music–and yes, it was a Jagjit Singh ghazal. The old woman clutched a speaker to her ear, a white computer speaker connected to a Walkman. She swayed her head this way and that, slowly, her uplifted hand accompanying the rhythm of the raga, an emerald ring set in blackened silver on one finger.
Vik had set aside the India book he had been reading and Kanhaiyya picked it up, leafing through it. Although Vik said, “it’s okay,” the boy put it back on the seat.
Two children ambled down the aisle: Dittu and a girl of about nine or ten, who looked like his big sister. She sang a doleful Hindi song and Dittu collected money. Vik did not give them anything. They were plump and cute, and looked more like forlorn characters in a Bollywood film, rather than the beggars of India Vik had pictured. Although, unlike the family children, who wore sandals, Dittu and his sister walked barefoot, and had cracked heels—he’d never seen that in a child before.
As Indian émigrés to the West Indies, Vik’s ancestors had been laborers. What if they’d remained back in India, would his lot have been much better than Dittu’s? His great-grandfather must have left a village just like the ones they were passing: nobody knew for certain what his occupation or position had been before he sailed to Guyana. Some said he worked on a farm on a daily wage, the hard life of a laborer; others said he sold fruit from a small cart in the market.
He indeed liked the fruit sellers in the stations: their push-carts were filled with bananas, guava fruit, mangoes yellow and large, fragrant. One time on the platform, he bought guavas from a thin young man with prematurely greying hair. Further down: a cart of samosas with a mosquito net covering them; and a passenger stood nearby, an old man with a jute bag slung over his shoulder, wearing a long white kurtah and a vest, an orange turban, and a string of rudraksha beads around his neck.
In the afternoon, Sarvani lay down on a lower berth. The grandmother started singing another ghazal with her eyes closed, the romantic refrain of which, Chale Aao, filled the compartment; and the rattle of the train seemed to accompany her singing. In an upper berth, Uncle had fallen asleep, snoring loudly.
Vik tried speaking to Kanhaiyya again. “Where are you traveling to?”
The boy looked up, as though to check on Uncle—still snoring. “Tirupati,” he finally said. “And you?”
“Vijayawada,” Vik replied. Kanhaiyya shared with his uncle those bold eye-brows—and the habit of shivering his legs.
“Do you have family there?” asked Kanhaiyya.
“No, I’ll be working. In a school.” He then added: “My name is Vik, short for Vikram.”
“One of my cousin name is Vikram,” he said, sounding excited. Vik stopped himself from correcting him that it should be “cousins”—he would learn soon enough, and this wasn’t an ESL classroom yet. “We are going to the Balaji temple. Have you heard about it?”
“Yes, the Tirupati temple—the second richest place of worship in the world after the Vatican.”
“I think it really is richer than the Vatican,” said Kanhaiyya, “because it is poor people’s money.”
Outside, fog had started to collect, and the sun was setting. They were passing through tiger country in central India: teak forests, rolling hills, ravines, and creeks rushing over boulders, the stones glowing in the orange light. The tourist in Vik looked out hungrily. And Kanhaiyya and the two boys shouted, in mock-American accents, “Oh, what a beautiful place! Oh, what a nice place. Oh! Oh! Really!” And then it degenerated into a contest among them, seeing who could speak in the funniest mock-American accent.
Twilight quickly gave way to darkness. Uncle got up and turned on the lights. It was suppertime. Vik liked Indian food, but wanted to wait until he could go to a proper restaurant: so he had shortbread cookies and another protein bar, while the family had puris, curried yellow rice, and yogurt, served neatly on the paper plates they had brought with them. There was the fragrance of toasted cumin, turmeric, coriander. Sarvani had taken off her veil to eat, and he thought her pretty: she ate neatly with her fingers, with the clink of bangles.
The adults belched after their meal, and then Uncle turned to Vik.
“Listen, have some halwa,” he said.
“Oh,” Vik said, “I’ve just had a bunch of cookies.”
“How big is this little piece, eh?” said Uncle, holding out one. “Just a gulp.”
“You must have it,” said Kanhaiyya. The three boys nodded like members of a jury.
“I get sick easily, you know.”
“And you said you were an Indian!” Uncle shook his head. “No Indian gets sick from eating halwa!”
“Have you had halwa before?” asked Kanhaiyya.
“Yes, many times. In America.”
“That’s firengi halwa,” Kanhaiyya said, wrinkling his nose. “Taste this and you will know what halwa is.”
The grandmother said, “I have not seen you eat anything all day.”
“I had cookies right in front of you!”
“It is not cooked food,” she said. “Why do they call it cook-kees? I made this halwa. Eat it.”
The halwa looked red, and inviting, with an almond flake on top, and the fragrance of saffron. Vik took a bite. The sweetness did not come from refined sugar—it had the denser, more complex flavor of jaggery, ghee, and something else.
“How is it?” the grandmother asked.
“It’s delicious,” he replied, and her face glowed.
“Have some more,” she said.
Uncle put a couple more pieces in the plate before Vik could stop him.
“No,” he groaned.
“What, no?” the grandmother said. “The Indian sun will bake you, and make you too dark, and then you won’t get a decent dowry. If you eat good things like my carrot halwa your cheeks will remain ruddy and round.” She lightly pinched Vik’s cheek.
Sarvani giggled, and Uncle frowned at her. She slipped the veil over her face.
Vik’s troubles started around nine, in the form of cough. The family had already turned in for the night, and he muffled his coughs with a handkerchief.
Whenever he felt he was about to throw up, he went and stood at the sink outside the compartment, waiting for it to happen, although praying it would not happen, wanting to keep the halwa down like a real Indian.
Dittu, his sister, and another boy slept in the passageway, curled up on thin, dirty towels. Back in the compartment, he looked at the empty berth: why couldn’t those children sleep there? But of course, this was a reserved compartment; they would not dare come in. Because of the coughing and the nausea, he sat up and prepared himself to read all night.
On his next visit to the sink however, he nudged the children awake. He had rehearsed what he wanted to say to them, in simple Hindi, but found it easier not to speak at all. He grunted, gestured, and led them to the empty berth. Hardly waking up, the children followed and occupied it, huddling together. Dittu squeezed into a sliver of space at the edge of the berth.
Vik got through a few more pages of Wolpert’s India, and another round of coughing. Then he heard a loud thud. Dittu had fallen from the berth. He rubbed his red eyes. Still half-asleep, he climbed back onto the berth. He fell down almost immediately. Sarvani twitched and turned over in her sleep, but fortunately did not wake up. Dittu fell down three or four times, and Vik worried that the noise might wake someone in the family: he didn’t expect they’d be too happy to see those children sharing their compartment, but he would wake them up at dawn, and send them back to the passageway.
Outside, it had started raining, water drops trickling down on to window bars, which clearly had been painted many times over to keep the rust away. Nevertheless, the bars felt rough to the touch, and flakes of peeling paint stuck to Vik’s fingers. He closed the iron shutters, and it smelled of iron and rust. Dittu’s sister reached up and pulled down the shutters on her side of the compartment. When she fell back on the berth, she occupied more space, and Dittu ended up on the floor again.
Vik laughed. And then needed to run to the sink. The inevitable finally happened.
When he got back after having thrown up, he felt much better: no more coughing.
He stayed up still, and instead of remaining in the compartment, went out to sit in the open doorway of the coach again. This time he took off his sandals, put his bare feet on the metal coach-steps, and felt the sand and dirt underfoot, and on his cheek was the cool breeze, the air still moist from faraway rain. The faint light of approaching dawn lit the sky and the land. They were on the Deccan plateau now, passing by rocky hillocks. And on the fields and beside the track, there were large boulders of granite, one on top of the other, impossibly balanced. Two water buffalo, mother and calf, grazed in a pasture: and a hut stood at the edge of the field, with someone asleep on a cot outside, a solitary lantern on the ground beside the bed. As per schedule, they were supposed to be pulling into Vijayawada just after 6 a.m. He felt sleepy, so he went back in, and set his alarm clock.
The alarm woke him up—or perhaps it was the shouting. Uncle was yelling at Dittu, and slapping him. The entire family was awake, looking on, still stretched out on their berths. Dittu’s sister watched, leaning against the wall at the edge of the compartment.
“Don’t hit him!” Vik hopped down from his berth. He clutched Dittu’s shoulder and pulled the boy towards himself. Dittu was not crying. In fact, he just looked bored and sleepy. “I made them take the empty berth.” Of course, a mistake, in caste-conscious India—but not, he told himself, if he had woken them up on time and sent them back to the passageway.
Uncle glared at him, and as the train pulled in at Vijayawada station, he took out a toothbrush and soap, and stormed out of the compartment.
Vik slung his backpack about his shoulders, and wheeled out his second piece of luggage–all the while holding on to Dittu, who ended up with him on the platform. He had no logic behind dragging Dittu along. The boy looked at him with an amused expression, now fully awake. His sister stood at the door and frowned at Vik, seemingly afraid to come on to the platform, and at the same time not willing to lose sight of her brother.
From his wallet, Vik took out two 100 rupee notes—about $4, and offered it to Dittu. His sister stepped down, grabbed the money, and pulled Dittu back on to the train. They disappeared inside without glancing back.
A man in a white shirt approached him. “Mister Vikram Seecharan? I am Mister Rao, School Secretary.”
Pankaj Challa was trained as an electrical engineer, and has made independent films: but on reading Chekhov, has turned seriously to the art of writing. He recently received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, where he was a James Michener Fellow. Pankaj’s fiction has appeared in Crazyhorse and Saint Ann’s Review, among other places.