THE BLOG

Tales From The Toofaan Express

03/09/2015 06:51 am ET

It is nearing dusk. The woman across the street wearing a burka looks like Nazneen. Hoping to catch a glimpse of her face, I run toward her. Startled, the woman turns around. Of course it's not Nazneen. I apologize profusely.

Oh hypocrite! Didn't you make sure Nazneen stayed on in Agra three years ago, while you flew back to your comfortable life in California? I ask myself. Why do you search for her now?

*****

On that cold December morning I found my agitation mounting as I paced the platform inside the train station. The scheduled train from Allahabad to Agra had been cancelled due to heavy fog, and no one knew if another train was going to come or not. I had travelled half way around the world to see the Taj Mahal, but now a whim of nature was about to destroy all my plans.

After waiting nearly four hours, I was beginning to wonder if there was some truth in the belief that only lovers would reach that monument made in the name of love.

Was that the distant whistle of a train I heard? Before long, The Toofaan Express, true to its name, appeared wailing like a hurricane from around the bend.

The crowds on the platform suddenly became animated. The ticket checker lovingly known as the TT started to speak to the jostling crowd while looking in my direction. Something made him address me loudly above the heads in the throng.

"Madam, Toofaan Express is the junta's train. There's only third class in it. There's no first or second class. Do you still want to take it?"

"Yes, yes!" I said. "Just find me a seat please."

A TT is an important official in the Indian Railway System with a legendary ability to perform miracles like producing a seat from nowhere. This TT looked sharp in his starched white uniform, a gold insignia of the Indian Railways on his left pocket, and a sparkling brass whistle hanging on a chain around his neck.

"Let me see," he said peering into the log book in his hand, and scratching his head with a pencil. "Ah Yes!"

He had found a seat for me.

"There's a full berth in compartment eleven. But you'll have to pay five hundred extra rupees," he said to me in a conspiratorial tone.

"I'll take it," I said.

The TT marched away to make the arrangements telling me the train was not leaving for another half hour.

As soon as the train came to a stop I had noticed a man and burka clad woman on the platform. The veil of the burka covered the woman's face, but hennaed feet and silver anklets said she was a new bride. She held a small red bag in one hand and a Tiffin carrier in the other. The man was wearing city clothes, a black coat over dark brown trousers. He was carrying a heavy brown suitcase in his right hand and a brief case under his same arm. With his free left hand, he was urging the woman forward. He seemed to be in a hurry to get inside the train.

The TT returned and showed me my compartment. The seating arrangement inside was unusual. Seats numbered one through six were already occupied by people who sat facing each other on two long berths. Perpendicular to their seats I had a full berth all to myself. I felt secretly pleased as I put my luggage on the overhead rack. I had room to stretch on this long journey to Agra.

I recognized the burka clad woman and the man with her. They were also in this compartment.

An older Hindu man wearing a white cotton kurta over a traditional dhoti sat closest to me on the berth to my right. I found him looking at me over his bifocals with some amusement.

"How much bribe did you have to pay to the TT to get this seat?" He asked.

"What bribe?" I responded with some ire. "I paid five hundred rupees for a reserved berth."

"Did he give you a receipt?"

"No. But he wrote the three seat numbers on my ticket."

I also pointed out the sticker on the window next to my seat.

"Heh heh heh," laughed the man, his ample belly shaking in merriment. "Our TT Babu has done it again!"

"Oh hush!" said the woman sitting next to him poking him with her elbow. She then turned toward me and said "Don't mind my husband. He's always making funny observations."

The train started to move.

"We're going to the Keshav Dev Temple in Mathura to get Lord Krishna's help," the woman whispered to me. "Our daughter is childless. Her husband threatens to find another wife if she doesn't produce a son very soon."

Uttering some expression of sympathy, I turned away from her unsolicited confidences.

The young man sitting on the same berth close to the window also seemed eager to share his life story.

"I'm never returning to my village," he said. "I've got a job in the Citi Bank."

Who was I to dampen his enthusiasm by telling him what awaited him in the big city? I said he was very lucky to have found a job in the bank.

In spite of short hair and my blue jeans my looks were clearly Indian. I was speaking in Hindi, and these passengers were not shy discussing their hopes and frustrations with a total stranger like me.

After I settled in my seat I noticed the young man on the seat to my left. He was thumbing through a magazine with a smiling Bollywood actress on its cover. He sighed deeply and tossed from time to time a naughty curl from his forehead like some unbearable thought. Without looking up he asked me curtly if I came from the U.K.

I told him I lived in California and was only visiting India. "My journey ends in Agra," I said.

"My name is Rajiv," he said "but I'm going to change it to Raj Kumar once I get to Bollywood."

"Everyone thinks I came to Allahabad because this is my ancestral home, but I've really come so far to see the Taj Mahal," I confided to my new friend.

"The lucky ones get to see the Taj," said Rajiv with another sigh. "I'm not so lucky. The girl I loved married someone else. I'm leaving this place to become a film actor in Mumbai. I know she'll never find happiness. She'll be sorry she didn't wait for me."

His voice had something strangely cheerful about it as he predicted his beloved's fate before returning to his magazine.

The woman in the black silk burka sat closest to the window on the left. Most of her face was covered with her niqab, only her gold brown eyes were visible. When our eyes met, without speaking she raised her hand in a salaam.

Her full lipped husband sat in the middle, separating her from the Bollywood bound young man. He had furtively slid his hand under the woman's burka, and was running his fingers on the inside of her thighs. I felt my face flush when I realized he was glaring at me with unmasked disapproval. There were hints of ancient cruelties in his glittering black eyes. I looked away.

The Hindu pilgrim muttered something under his breath, but his wife shushed him again. "Old man, you have just forgotten what it's like for the newlyweds," she said.

A few minutes later the man opened the Tiffin carrier, and started to place morsels of puris and bhaji in the woman's mouth and also his own with slow languorous movements.

When the meal finished the woman leaned back with a contented sigh, and the man, clearly appreciative of the incantatory rhythm of the train, started drumming his fingers on the briefcase in his lap.

It was impossible to ignore him.

*****

This was my first visit to India. For me, the microcosm of the whole country had come together in this one compartment. Here was the rich tapestry my father often talked about, and nothing seemed to have changed since he left India fifty years ago. After travelling here for three weeks I had started to believe I understood this country.

Lulled by the cadence of the train most of the passengers started to doze, and I settled down with my book The Complete Taj Mahal by Ebba Koch. I had planned my journey carefully around a medical conference in Jaipur, a stopover to meet relatives in Allahabad, and finally Agra. Experiencing the Taj Mahal was going be the highlight of my trip.

My friends Kim and Timothy were arriving separately from Delhi and meeting me tomorrow morning. In order to avoid the crowds at the main entrance, our travel agent had arranged for us to approach Taj Mahal in a small boat on the Yamuna River. A fisherman was going to row us along the wide arc in the river to a point opposite the Taj, from where the view of the majestic tomb was considered priceless. At sunrise the white marble mausoleum would be bathed in a conch pink glow. We were also going to view the mausoleum at night from Mahtab Bagh, the Moonlight garden. It was rumored that on the night of the full moon, this monument built by the Emperor Shah Jehan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal took on the appearance of an enchanted palace. I did not remember feeling so excited about anything in a long time.

An hour passed and the train started to slow down.

"Fatehpur!" announced the TT loudly, walking down the train corridor. "It's a short stop. Only three minutes."

The man with the burka-clad woman shot up from his seat. Grabbing his brief case and his bulging suitcase, he started to stride rapidly toward the exit of the train.

"Where are you going?" the woman spoke for the first time in local poorbi. Her voice was young and girlish. She was obviously from these parts.

"You stay here Jaan-e-munn!" he said, calling her his darling. "I'll be back soon."

Then he rushed out of the train, and disappeared among the crowds.

Passengers were scrambling to board the train or get out with their children and their belongings. Just as the TT warned, the train stopped here only for three minutes. The train guard waved his green flag, and the TT blew two sharp whistles announcing imminent departure.

The train started to pull out of the station.

The woman's husband had not yet returned.

"Stop!" she screamed lifting her veil.

She was young and strikingly beautiful. Her smooth skin, the color of wheat and gold was flushed with anxiety, and her eyes were filling with tears. "My husband has been left behind on the platform!"

The TT heard her clamor and marched up to the girl.

"His ticket was only until Fatehpur. He told me you'd be going to Agra alone," he said.

"No, no, no!" the girl kept saying loudly. "This cannot be. There's some mistake here."

"There's no mistake. It's typically done this way," muttered the TT, not looking at the girl.

Then he turned his back toward her, and started to check the new passengers who had just boarded the train.

The burka clad girl started to weep.

"Array Allah, have mercy on me! What shall I do?"

"Calm down daughter," said the older Hindu man. "How long have you been married to this fellow?"

"Two days" said the girl sobbing.

"What about dowry?"

"My parents gave him everything he wanted!" she wailed. They sold their land and pawned their home to give me a dowry!

"I hope the swine loses his manhood!" The Hindu man's wife stood up and started to curse in Hindi. Then she put a hand on the abandoned girl's head and started to pray.

Silence filled the compartment. The two young men sat with their eyes cast down. The magazine with the actress lay on the floor. Words were swimming before my eyes, but I continued to read my book. I didn't know what to say to the abandoned girl. I felt both fearful and desirous of helping her.

She was now weeping silently. I decided to get up and sit next to her.

Putting my arm around her trembling shoulders I said "Do you understand Urdu?"

She nodded a yes.

She said her name was Nazneen. She was seventeen years old, and a Muslim like me.

"Don't get frantic," I said. "I'll buy you a ticket and you can return to your village on another train."

"No, never! I can never return to my parents now. They'll throw me out saying my husband left me because I must not have been a..."

"Do you know anyone in Agra?" I said.

"No," she said, her mouth quivering.

"Perhaps we should go to the police station."

"No! Not there. Don't you know what they do to women there? I'd rather jump off the train and kill myself."

There was some truth in her statement. The newspapers were full of stories about police brutality, the regulated rapes and torture of women who had no home.

"I'll try to help you," I said returning to my own seat, not knowing what I could do for the unfortunate girl. I was just a traveler and short on time, scheduled to fly back to the United States in forty eight hours.

The train suddenly picked up speed. We were passing through the heart of India now. Bullock carts overloaded with fragrant guavas were laboring gently toward market towns. Village women in red and yellow skirts were walking, hips swaying to the rhythm of bells around the necks of their bullocks. They carried tiers of baskets filled with fiery red tomatoes and green chili peppers on their heads.

The absurdity of the circumstances struck me. The tranquility of the scene outside was just an illusion. Real life was inside this train, with its travelers and their collapsing worlds. Inside this train human tragedy in its many guises made the anguish of the passengers palpable.

Shadows lengthened, sunlight faded and the train continued its journey. The silences of our compartment were broken only by a spasmodic sob from the girl, or an intermittent sigh from the Bollywood bound young man. It was nearly dark outside. Peasants had lit fires along the train tracks to keep their thinly clad bodies warm against the bitter chill. The smoke from these smoldering piles stung my eyes; they refused to stop tearing even as the train was arriving into the Agra Cantonment Station.

Our train was four hours late. Only a few yellow lights illuminated this small station and the guide from my travel agency had given up and left. I lifted my suitcase and told Nazneen to follow me to the women's waiting room.

"I've been trying to think of a way out, but you don't have many choices. Would an ashram or a women's shelter be acceptable to you?" I said.

She nodded her assent and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.

Together we walked up to the area marked Taxi Stand. There were no taxis here. Only a group of men were standing under the street lamp. When they saw us they started making obscene kissing noises.

"Sali women are running away to be with their khasams," said one of them.

When I turned around and glared at them, they shut up.

"Where can we find a taxi?" I asked another man who was standing apart from the ruffians under the lamp.

"There are no taxis so late at night madam, but you can get a private car. It's more expensive, though," he said hesitating.

"Never mind the expense," I said. "Please just help us find a car."

"Where do you want to go Madam?" said the man.

"I have reservations at the Jaypee Palace, but first I want to find an ashram or a women's shelter for my companion."

The man appeared puzzled for a moment. Then he seemed to understand the situation completely.

"I'll go and find Vijay. He has lived in Agra for many years. I'm sure he knows of such places."

*****

I felt suddenly cold when I saw the man wearing a cream colored silk shirt and a gold chain around his neck walking toward us. He introduced himself in excellent English and said he had lived in California for a number of years.

"I used to own a limousine service in Beverly Hills," he said. "Visitors from America always like to come back to me. I know all of the little gems not known to most people around here."

He handed me a gold colored business card embossed with his name and mobile number.

Vijay Sharma

Private Limousine Services

Then he opened the car door for me and my charge. When I told him where I wanted him to take us he shook his head sadly and my heart sank. Then he clicked his fingers and knocked himself on his forehead.

"I'm becoming stupid in my old age!" he said. "Of course there's a place. A shelter for women has opened recently. An NGO has put in a lot of funds in that place to help women who have nowhere else to go."

I could hardly believe our luck. "Just take us there please!" I said to him.

The long wait on the platform in Allahabad and the tension of the last several hours had given me a pounding headache. A hard knot, the kind which developed whenever I had to confront the family of a terminal patient, was starting to tighten in my stomach. I just wanted all this to be over. I needed a warm shower and a decent meal. And of course I wanted to rest before my visit to the Taj Mahal!

Nazneen had not said a word since the man called Vijay approached us with his car. She was clinging to me like a child. I translated for her what the man had told me and pressed her hand in reassurance.

"Sub Theek ho jaiy gaa," I whispered in her ear, telling her all will be well.

She relaxed her grip.

"The shelter is on the way to Keetham Lake," Vijay said to me as he pulled his new Ambassador car on to the NH2 highway. After some distance when he exited toward the woodlands the street lamps became fewer and far between. A full moon had risen and I was able to read the sign for a bird sanctuary. The long shadows of the trees filled me with foreboding. Lit only by headlights, it was unnerving to see the car going down a deep slope which appeared to be diving under the trees like a rabbit's burrow.

"How much further do we have to go?" I said.

"We're almost there," he said lighting a cigarette.

I was mortified. I was the paying passenger; he could have at least asked me if it was okay for him to smoke. Then I realized I was not in California. I didn't want to offend him, so I just rolled down the window.

There was a strange odor in the air. I recognized the smell of burning flesh even before I saw the sign for the Murghat. Flames were leaping in the distance where another soul was being transported to the other world. I felt the shudder which ran through the young woman sitting next to me.

A yellow brick building suddenly appeared in a clearing in the forest. It was a strange location for a shelter. There was no plaque or board outside.

Vijay must have read my thoughts.

"They built the shelter here to keep out the revengeful husbands and brothers," he said. "Same reason they do not have a sign board outside."

I could see the wisdom behind this. Anyone searching for a runaway wife or sister determined to cut off her nose would hesitate to come this far. Twenty kilometers was a long distance, especially if the man was travelling on foot or on a bicycle.

The shelter was an old hunting lodge from the days of the Raj. It was in a state of terrible disrepair. Paint was peeling from the walls, and the grass outside had not been mowed in months. It took several minutes of knocking on the heavy wooden door before a woman answered.

The woman was wearing a red organza sari and a diamond sparkled in her left nostril. Her lips were red from the paan she had been chewing. She stared at us for a whole minute before asking what we wanted.

"Tara it's me!" Vijay reminded her he had brought other women to the shelter in the past.

"Ah yes of course. Vijay Sharma! Come in."

"I'm going to let this lady explain to you what she wants," said Vijay pointing to me. "I'll wait outside in the car while you talk."

Nazneen removed her burka and her veil, and Vijay stood staring at her lovely face and form before leaving us alone with Tara.

Tara said this was a private shelter which had been functioning nominally for several years. After not receiving funding, a nameless benefactor suddenly made it possible to open its doors again.

"Nothing gets done by the government," said Tara. "Here we're able to offer women a roof over their heads, and teach them ways to survive when they leave."

She said she could accommodate Nazneen.

The woman and the place troubled me but it would have to do for now. An hour later the formalities were complete. I had filled out several forms with Nazneen's information and also mine and where to find me. I was given a carbon copy of everything.

Besides the small office where we met Tara, there were four or five rooms. The doors were all heavy and padlocked.

"I cannot show them to you because they are presently occupied. Would she like this one?" she said, pointing to a box like windowless room, as if we had a choice.

Where else could I take Nazneen? She did not have but a change of clothes and few rupees in her small attaché case. I offered to give her the last of my currency, keeping just enough to pay Vijay after I arrived at my hotel. I could always use the ATM machine or my credit card at the hotel.

Nazneen started to weep, saying she did not want me to leave her.

"I don't want your money. I just don't want to be left here."

"Listen Nazneen," I said. "This place is the best alternative for now. As soon as I get back to the United States I will make a special plea for you. Maybe I can find a way to bring you to California."

I was talking fast, attempting to convince Nazneen about what was best for her. She kept shaking her head, repeating "Please don't leave me here," while I continued to insist she should understand her position and agree.

"Be brave" I said to her. "You'll be all right."

"How would you know?"

For the first time I saw a flicker of reproach and scorn in those eyes with gold flecks.

"You want to get rid of me so you can get your rest before your big day tomorrow!"

"What are you talking about?" I said.

"I heard you tell that man in the train you had come across many seas to see Taj Mahal. I'm frustrating your plans. This is why you are leaving me here!"

"Please Nazneen...." I tried to kiss her on her cheek, but she turned away from me.

The woman in the red sari did not say much. I couldn't read her hard black eyes. She had no words of comfort for the girl or any assurances for me.

Vijay was getting impatient and flustering me with his honking. He made the decision for me. I could no longer face this situation.

"Allah will be your protector," I lied to Nazneen walking toward the door.

How could I tell her I had stopped believing in the goodness of all gods a very long time ago? I left her standing in the doorway of that ghostly house with the woman in the red sari.

I read triumph in Tara's face as she saw me close the car door.

*****

Twinkling lights of the Jaypee Palace appeared on a hill fragrant with winter jasmine. Handsome servants in tight red fitting Sherwani coats and crisp white cotton turbans were waiting in the marble entry way. Low notes from a Veena meant to delight the senses only increased my irritation.

"Welcome madam. Welcome to the Jaypee Palace and to Agra, the City of Taj Mahal." The hostess came forward, lovely in her black Mughlai outfit "How was your journey? Will you be coming down for dinner or you'll have dinner in your room?

Suddenly I felt old and tired.

"Thank you, but I'm not hungry." I could not explain the strange taste of dust in my mouth.

Exhausted from the troubles of the day I fell asleep in my street clothes.

Sound of thunder woke me from my nightmares. The clock was reading five a.m. I dialled the number written on the papers I had signed at the shelter. The bell kept ringing. Finally the city operator came on the line.

"There's no such listing for Agra," she said.

I gave her Vijay's mobile number.

"Could you connect me to this number please?"

The operator scrolled through her screen.

"This mobile number was disconnected many years ago," she said.

My hearted started hammering against my chest. My throat was parched. I rushed down the sweeping marble stairway to the lobby.

"It's too early madam. The car which takes you to the Taj Mahal will not be here for an hour," said the night manager still on duty.

"I'm not here looking for the car," I said, hating the tremor in my voice.

I showed him the papers I had with me.

"Do you know this shelter for women?"

He squinted, shrugged his shoulders and said he did not know such a place.

"I want to talk to the police," I said.

"Certainly, Madam."

He got me the local police inspector Tijender Singh on the phone, and I related the events of the night.

The inspector listened to what I had to say without interrupting me. After I finished, he said. "I'll put you on hold. I'm going to make some enquiries."

I kept crossing and uncrossing my fingers hoping the phone operator was mistaken. After a long silence the inspector returned.

"I'm sorry madam. I have a list of all the NGO's and shelters in front of me. There's none which matches your address or phone number but I'll make a report of your query."

The hotel management was eyeing me with suspicion now. They did not want any trouble here. This palace of the winds promised only tranquility to its prestigious guests.

"We'll be sure to notify you if we locate the shelter you say exists at this address," the general manager said in his most courteous tones.

Go to hell all of you! I wanted to scream, hating their lopsided world. Excesses and brazen displays of wealth were justified here even in the face of such frightening depths as I had encountered in the last twenty four hours. I dialled the emergency number for my travel agent. I told her I had to leave right away.

"But madam we have a fabulous visit planned for you and your friends. It would be a shame to miss it."

"I'm sorry too," I said, "but I simply have to leave."

I did not want her to hear the tears in my voice. I was not crying because I was not going to see the Taj.