Skip to main content

An Indian Odyssey

ยท
Rating: PG

When returned to his swaying compartment, Doug Thompson found a strange man sitting on the floor. Thinking he had made a mistake, he started to go back out, but the other passengers in the room had traveled with him all the way from Bombay. The raw-boned farmer on the left with his wife and small daughter looked up at him idly, and the mustached businessman who shared his own seat was still busy with his stack of papers. Jammed among their suitcases and feet, the newcomer, a very small old man, sat cross-legged on a piece of cardboard, calmly reading aloud to himself in a barely audible voice as if he'd been there for hours. On the cover of his well-worn book, a tall, blue god and a warrior king with a golden helmet stood in the most ornate chariot imaginable. Its title was in the Devanagari script, but Doug recognized it immediately as the Bhagavad Gita, which he himself was reading in English.

He had found his copy in his hotel room the night before, the Indian equivalent of a Gideon's Bible, when jet lag and travel anxiety woke him at three in the morning. The picture of Krishna revealing Truth to his disciple on a battlefield of soldiers seemed so extraordinary that he read fifty pages before falling back to sleep, and then took it with him for his unexpected train ride.

He was on a quick return trip to India as a consultant on "enterprise software," with appointments in Bangalore and Chennai-Madras, but his carefully made arrangements had all gone wrong. Fog in New York had kept him on the runway for over three excruciating hours, which forced him to catch a late plane out of Frankfurt and made him miss his domestic connection in Bombay altogether. He had hoped to find another flight to Bangalore with only minor delays, but it was late May and many thousands of Indians were returning home on vacation from their businesses and studies abroad. Every plane was absolutely full, with impossibly long waiting lists, and, in spite of all his protests, the bored young woman at the airline counter told him flatly that he faced a one-week delay. One week! He wasn't about to put up with it. Aside from his appointments and the expense of staying so long in Bombay, he had promised Karen, his new wife, he would be home in fourteen days. Deeply exhausted, he found a hotel, slept a few fitful hours, and caught a train south early the next morning. It would take eighteen precious hours to reach Bangalore, but at least it would get him there in time for his second meeting. To stay functional, he would just have to rest as best he could along the way.

Squeezing past the old man, he picked up his book from his seat, sat down with his laptop computer beside him, and sighed. It already was going to be a long, uncomfortable ride, and now he didn't have enough room to stretch his legs. Irritated, he stared at the old man and wondered what on earth he was doing there. Did the overcrowded Indian railways actually sell tickets for space on the floor? None of the other passengers were paying the old man any attention, and he seemed oblivious to them all, as if he had were entirely at home there among their feet. The singsong way he was reading aloud was going to be very tiresome too if he stayed the whole remaining fourteen hours.

Doug went back into the corridor to look for the placid conductor who appeared after each stop, but couldn't find him anywhere. Dark, irrational blocks of thought tumbled through his mind about Indian inefficiency, overcrowding, overpopulation, and insufficient infrastructure, and he returned to his seat and stared out the window to compose himself. The train was pulling out of what seemed to be the same station. A dozen times that day already, he had seen similar travelers waiting on what could have been the same platform. The railway buildings, the tea stalls, the boys with meals in tins were identical, and out of the station stretched the same concrete apartments, the river with buffaloes and women washing laundry, the endless tiny fields with mud-walled houses and farmers plowing with teams of bullocks. He had been traveling half a day, but had the feeling he was getting nowhere. Unlike at the airport, no one spoke English, and when he had gotten out at the last stop to find something safe to drink, he had become momentarily disoriented. A crowd of brown, peering faces had pressed against him uncontrollably, with no regard for his Western sense of necessary body space, making him feel suffocated. He had to fight his way through them back to the train, and almost failed to get back aboard in time. To make matters worse, his stomach was full of strange rumors of unrest ever since he had eaten the "tiffin snack" his hotel had prepared for him. The dry, smoky taste in the back of his mouth wouldn't go away, and the thought of getting sick on a jostling train, where no one could understand or help him was alarming. The clacking of the rails resumed its rhythm, and he closed his eyes, thought of Karen, and tried to sleep in spite of the jarring vibrations.

"I hope you don't mind," the old man said suddenly in a thick, British-Indian accent.

Doug pried open his weary eyes and stared at him. He was very thin, with balding white-gray hair, and wore a traditional white shirt and dhoti of the thinnest, hand-woven cloth, torn in several places. In stark contrast, his heavy glasses had such thick lenses that they magnified his eyes. He blinked, owl-like, when Doug didn't answer immediately, but he sat erect as if he was entirely comfortable on his strip of cardboard on the dirty floor, his head at knee level to the rest of the world.

"The train is overcrowded, as usual," the old man went on. "Still, I may not be here for long."

Doug sighed again - another traveler inconvenienced.

"The next stop is only thirty-seven and a half minutes away," the old man added, "but I can go to another compartment if you like."

"No. It's not a problem," Doug lied. The old man looked penniless, and he was so polite and unassuming that Doug didn't have the heart to send him away. All he really wanted to do was sleep. His eyelids drooped heavily.

"I rejoice that you are reading the Gita," the old man confided in him. "I had heard more and more foreigners have discovered it. When I saw your copy, I took it as a sign."

Doug made a mental note never to steal books from hotel rooms in strange countries and leave them on train seats again. He decided against conversation, leaned his head back, and began to drift.

The conductor finally arrived to take tickets, and he too showed no particular surprise at finding a passenger camped on the floor. Barely glancing at the worn slip of paper in cellophane that the old man showed him, he joked with him in Hindi as if he were an old friend and went out again. Doug nodded off.

"Excuse me, but are you ill?" the old man asked.

Doug opened his eyes again nervously, wondering whether something was beginning to show in his face. "I don't think so," he said. "My stomach's a little strange, but I'm hoping it's just because I haven't been able to sleep."

The old man studied him deeply. Then he pulled out a little box from the small cotton sack beside him and opened it. Inside were tiny compartments full of white pills, and he picked up a single pill in a slip of paper and folded it up neatly.

"Take this," he said, handing it to Doug. "It's entirely harmless. I take one every day. It will steady you the rest of the way to Bangalore. You still have a long ride."

Doug accepted it but didn't put it in his mouth, mildly surprised that the man had guessed his destination so easily, although since he was a Westerner with a laptop headed south toward the software capital of India, it probably had been easy. "Are you a doctor?" he asked cautiously.

"No, no. Medicine is my just hobby," the old man said with a laugh. "I worked in a railway station in the north, largely in charge of scheduling conflicts. That's how I got my pass."

"Have you come far?" Doug asked.

"From Almora again, in the Himalayas."

The Himalayas were over a thousand miles away, and Doug lifted his head.

"Are you going as far Bangalore?" he asked, hoping the old man could help him make sure he got off at the right stop. He was beginning to think he had better find a real doctor quickly in Bangalore.

"All the way to Kaniya Kumari, I should think - Cape Comorin - at the tip of India."

That was five hundred miles farther south than Bangalore, a long way to travel on the floor, though the answer was strangely indefinite.

"Quite an odyssey," Doug said.

The old man looked off into the air, as if he had to fly back into the remote past to find the reference. "Ah yes, the Odyssey. I've read it. Greek, is it not?"

"I believe so," Doug said. He had been forced to read it in college, four years before, and had promptly re-read it immediately.

"Quite a tale," the old man said

At this moment several boys brought in trays with the different meals the passengers had ordered. The old man didn't receive anything and returned his attention to his book. The others began to eat with relish, but when Doug smelled the fiery curry and pickles on his own plate, his troubled stomach threatened to run wild in the streets. Reeling, he realized he had to get rid of his plate quickly, and the old man looked like he could use a meal.

"Please," he said, holding it out to him, "would you like this?"

The old man accepted it with a polite nod but no noticeable surprise. "You're very kind, as I expected. I knew this was the right compartment."

"It's just that I don't think I can eat it," Doug added quickly.

The old man closed his eyes, apparently in prayer, opened them again, and began devouring his meal. The sight was an act of provocation that brought jeers of protest from Doug's stomach, and he got up immediately and went out of the compartment for fresher air. The whole corridor reeked of curry. He rushed to the "Western-style" bathroom and splashed water on his face, careful not to drink a deadly, microbe-laden drop, which brought longed-for relief. Secure for the moment from the sudden threat of cobblestones ready to be hurled from within, he went out to the windows between the cars, breathed deeply, and stared at the quiet, cool-looking paddy fields, full of toiling women, big-horned water buffaloes, and white buffalo egrets. He realized he was sweating and perhaps feverish - from food poisoning, dysentery, typhoid, or the Lord knew what. He was definitely going to have to find medical help. As soon as he reached Bangalore, he would phone his hotel about it. Only after the boys had returned for the trays did he return to his cabin.

The other passengers in the compartment filed out to wash their hands. The old man stood up as slowly as if he had to will each vertebra into place. Barely over five feet tall, he was stooped and frail, and as light boned as an egret. Before he left, he carefully folded up his strip of cardboard and leaned it upright beneath the window beside his soiled bundle. When he returned, well after the others, he sat back down on his cardboard once more and read to himself aloud for a while. Then he fell silent and closed his eyes. Feeling more collected, Doug considered the pill folded up in his pocket, but couldn't imagine taking it without knowing anything about it or the old man. Hoping the rioters in his stomach had spent themselves in angry protests, he closed his tired eyes again to sleep. If only he could sleep...

"The Odyssey," the old man announced out of the blue again. "What an odd tale! I understood it."

"Yes?" Doug said, struggling for consciousness.

"Odysseus had been away at war. He was a clever man, but the gods turned on him because of his pride and the sins of his crew. All except for the goddess, of course. Because he was so devoted to her, she appeared to him whenever he needed her most, though sometimes she kept him waiting, for years even, to curb his great pride. She was always tricking him and appearing in disguise. They had a wonderful relationship."

Doug listened attentively. It was better to be distracted from the jostling placards and wall graffiti still distantly trying to communicate with him from his lower intestines.

"He had to battle demons and giants for the betterment of the world," the old man went on. "Eventually he was reduced to absolutely nothing, a naked man in the great sea of life, and learned humility. An innocent young girl pounding her laundry on a riverbank took pity on him and saved him, though he had many trials ahead on his great pilgrimage."

Doug opened his eyes wider at this novel interpretation of Odysseus, the great pilgrim.

"Finally he was reduced to appearing at his own home with a beggar's bowl and staff," the old man went on. "When they spread the banana leaves before him and gave him his balls of rice, he learned that demonic men had been killing his holy cows. You can imagine how low he felt. And now they wanted his wife. He would have wept in outrage and given himself away, but the goddess steadied him. Later she even fought in armor at his side, and with her help he defeated all the demons and purified his home. It is always better to have deity at your side."

"Good advice," Doug thought. Then he noticed that the old man was looking at him fixedly, and realized that he had been impolite enough to smile wanly at the banana leaves and rice. "Like you said, it's an amazing story," he said quickly. "I hadn't heard quite that spin on it before."

If the old man was offended, he didn't allow it to affect him for long.

"That is how I remember it, from a very long time ago," he said with dignity.

He looked so frail in his tiny space on the floor, with his pathetic bundle, that Doug suddenly felt very sympathetic toward him.

"Are you on a pilgrimage yourself?" he asked.

"Yes, since my retirement," the old man said, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. "It's mandatory, you know, once you reach sixty-five."

"Retirement or pilgrimage?" Doug asked.

"Retirement," the old man said gravely. "Pilgrimage is always voluntary. Basically, I'm always on pilgrimage now. I travel a lot."

Doug looked at him more closely still.

"Are you a ... an ascetic? What do call it? A san..."

"A sanyasin. Not particularly, not yet. I'm considering it, but it has legal implications. I would have to give up my pass, officially. You could say I'm on my way, but since I no longer have a family, it's not so important. You see, I've outlived them all - wife, children, relatives, friends - everyone who really knew me. No one in the world knows me now."

In his weakened condition, it seemed to Doug a terribly sad statement, though there was no sadness in the old man's voice, just the even clarity of great distance, as if all his losses had been long ago. Staring at what seemed to him the loneliest person on earth, Doug felt a surge of longing for his own wife and apartment in New York, if he could only survive the interminable train ride. To have no one to go back to anywhere, to be a stranger everywhere, would be appalling.

"And you're always on pilgrimage?" Doug asked, sorry for the old man. "What does that mean?"

"Well, I travel to lots of holy places - sometimes here, sometimes there. I can travel anywhere with my pass, and I do. The railway is very convenient when you can't be sure where you're going. Sooner or later you can get anywhere on the trains."

"But don't you know where you're going?" Doug asked. "How do you make arrangements? I mean, how do you decide?"

The old man looked at him calmly with his magnified eyes. "That would be rather awkward to explain," he said at last. "Eventually, I just know."

Doug looked back at him, and his great puzzlement must have shown, as well as his building illness.

"Since you have been kind to me and have a good heart, since you yourself are drawn to Krishna, I will tell you," the old man said at last. "When the time comes, He tells me. Sometimes He takes me by the hand and leads me to the next compartment on the next train."

Doug was as surprised as if he had stumbled upon an ancient Greek from three thousand years before or an outright madman.

"He too is a great rascal," the old man went on. "Sometimes He makes me wait for Him until the absolute last minute. The stories I could tell you about the trains I've almost missed or the times He's left me standing in the rain without a train in sight. It's quite a workout at my age. The conductors are justifiably furious when I board trains in motion. And He appears in all manner of disguises - a child, a dog, a fish, a kite. I have to admit - at first I though you might..."

"Be Krishna?" Doug asked incredulously.

"Well, a Westerner with the Gita... Of course, He has a different presence altogether."

"Of... But does it work for you? You just go where Krishna leads you?"

"Ever since I my retirement... Basically, I've been living on the railways continually since then, with short interludes for temples, banyan trees, the confluences of rivers. It's not what I would have expected, but on the railway you have water, shade, a place to sit, toilet facilities - everything. Who am I to choose otherwise?"

Doug tried to imagine a life on jostling trains packed with strangers. It seemed a nightmare. His stomach turned, igniting Molotov cocktails ready to be thrown in its deepest interiors.

"And I do meet the kindest people," the old man said. "I've hardly spent a rupee on food in the last fifteen years. I can't tell you the money I've saved from my tiny pension. Really, I wouldn't live any other way now. I couldn't. I recommend it to you. All you have to do is think of Him - continually and sincerely, forever." He beamed, as if at the great, enjoyable joke his life had become.

Doug tried to digest the words "fifteen years." "If you don't mind," he asked, "how old are you?"

"Eighty-six."

That meant he had been living on the Indian railways for twenty-one years -longer by far than Odysseus, that great pilgrim, had wandered the Mediterranean.

And there he was, such a very old man, with no place left in life but a space on the hard, dirty floor.

Doug was on the point of making room for him on the seat, but his mind was full of questions.

"But how do you...? Where do you...? What do you...?" he began, but the long-suppressed rage of his internal populace finally erupted in flaming vehicles and shattered glass, with an audible, gaseous groan that made the other passengers look up, and he was forced to retreat quickly to the Western-style bathroom for nearly twenty minutes.

Shaky but much purged and better off, he returned to the compartment shortly after the train pulled out of another identical station, only to find that the old man and his strip of cardboard and bundle were gone. Apparently Krishna kept him constantly on the move from one holy spot to another, even at his advanced age, or the old man was completely and restlessly mad.

Gingerly, Doug took up his seat again, longing for rest. To steady himself, he picked up his copy of the Gita, and found that the old man had left him a message within it, handwritten over a page in Devanagari script.

"If you don't take your medicine, you won't get well," it read, much as Karen herself might have told him.

Doug stretched out his legs and thought about her a long time. He would call her as soon as he reached Bangalore. Before closing his eyes to rest at last, he unfolded the pill the old man had given him and swallowed it. How do you argue with an eighty-six-year-old Indian Odysseus under the special protection of Krishna, who had managed to keep body and certainly soul together on the Indian trains for so many years? And although the pill tasted strangely of honey and wild onions, it did him no apparent harm. One way or another, the smoldering barricades in his bowls went out, civil peace returned to his stomach, and he slept soundly all the rest of the way to Bangalore early the next morning. In fact, the conductor had to wake him with a gentle shake, incredulous and concerned that a passenger should still be slumped in a seat when everyone else had exited a quarter of an hour before. The brown crowd of Indian humanity streaming across the platform to the taxis, buses, and autorickshaws was hopelessly large, and, as he joined the flow, Doug couldn't help but wish that Krishna would take him too by the hand and make him better travel arrangements.