Tuesday 28 February 2023

Night train to Chittagong

The carriage was full and two men were occupying our seats. "Those are our seats" said Dev (my guide) in English, forgetting to switch languages after speaking to me. "Speak in Bangla" spat back the older of the two men, annoyed at having to move. Dev repeated himself in Bangla and reluctantly, very reluctantly they moved.  Seats secured, the next challenge was to find somewhere to put the luggage. Just like the train from Kings Cross to Darlington there was insufficient storage space. After much moving of other people's belongings Dev managed to force my suitcase on to the overhead rack. It was some way from our seats and about one third of it hung over the head of those sitting below.  I spent the first hour of the journey convinced the full 16kg (according to airline check-in) would come crashing down on their heads before eventually relaxing and then worrying again in case it disappeared if I slept.

We had arrived early at the station and sat in the waiting room where we found one man already sleeping - full-length on the metal seats, smelling of alcohol and grumbling in his sleep. Dev recognised him as one of Sreemangal's misfits, born to a rich family but spending much of his time drunk in the street. He wore trousers that looked a bit like a set of my checked pyjamas, a filthy once-white shirt and a tatty tie. After ten minutes or so he woke up and began trying to charm two very small children, members of a Hindu family waiting for the same train as me. The kids looked a bit scared, edged closer to their mother and pretended to not be there. Giving up, he wished me "good morning" in English and went outside. 

The 11pm train from Sreemangal to Chittagong didn't have sleeper accommodation but it boasted a dining car. At least that's what it said on the side of one of the carriages. If it did have one, much of its business was being taken by dozens of vendors who invaded the train at each station selling water, juice, cooked food, crisps (or chips as they insist here), nuts, boiled eggs and other items. Most of the vendors were older teenagers who carried their goods on their heads and ducked past each other as they tried to cover the whole train during the ten to twenty minutes spent in every station. Inevitably there were younger vendors too. One very small boy selling water at 1.30 in the morning can have been no older than ten and possibly less. 

There were also vendors who remained on the train for most of the journey, selling tea and coffee made from a large thermos flask, tea bags or jars of Nescafe. They appeared every 20-30 minutes, calling out "tea coffee tea coffee" until about 4 am by which time most of the passengers were at least pretending to be asleep. I was tempted by the astonishing selection of items on offer and the not displeasing aromas, but having just recovered from a bout of food poisoning decided it was best to resist. 

The seats have been designed to ensure maximum discomfort

I find it hard to sleep on trains and flights and I didn't expect to sleep on the eight hours journey to Chittagong. My expectations were fulfilled. The seats are designed to ensure maximum discomfort. They are angled - too sharp to be able to recline and too far back to be able to sit upright. They are not adjustable. I tried various positions, including resting my head on the drop down table on the back of the chair in front, but again the angle of the seat made it impossible.  I took my shoes off to feel a bit more cosy (and because my mam always says your feet swell at night if you keep your shoes on - I'm more like her than I care to admit) - and then I put them back on. I put them on again because I couldn't put my sock clad feet on the ground without stepping in detritus including discarded pieces of food, tissues, a comb and some cigarette ends. There were also several plastic bottles that rolled underneath my seat when the train hit a particular speed. The latter explained the presence of a young woman rag-picker on the middle part of the journey. It didn't explain the presence of two pairs of Hijra who got on at different stations to collect "donations". 

Hijra is the name given to the various third-gender communities found in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Traditionally they have earned a living from giving "blessings" to newborn babies or at weddings, often demanding huge sums. They can be seen in the street soliciting money from passers-by or from the occupants of stationary vehicles. People generally give them a small amount of money in order to avoid any unpleasantness. If refused or otherwise upset they can sometimes become abusive and occasionally threatening. The first pair were good natured and received small notes from many the passengers. I usually "donate" and they were very happy with my 50 thaka, (about 50 pence) even providing me with change from a 100 thaka note and giving me a blessing which consisted of tapping me on the shoulder twice. 

"Na? Na? What is this na?"

When the second pair got on, they had a harder time as people didn't wish to give again. This led to some sharp exchanges, culminating in one with one of a group of inebriated young me sitting behind us. He  refused to give, offering a short "na" (meaning no) when asked. "Na? Na? What is this na?" asked the very offended taller of the pair, with her teased back hair and heavy make-up. He continued to refuse and things quickly deteriorated, him suggesting she take part in certain sexual practises and her alleging that his wife entertained other "husbands" when he wasn't there. The rest of the exchange escaped me, but it went on for a few minutes until the Hijra, satisfied she'd had her say went off to the next carriage.

Around 4am things quietened down a lot, though there were still occasional murmurings from behind. I dropped off shortly afterwards but woke at 5.45 just as the light began creeping through the window. An hour later we pulled into Chittagong and my fellow passengers alighted in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Dev and I agreed to wait until last so as to avoid struggling through the carriage to recover my suitcase which was still there and still partially hanging over the heads of the people sitting below. At about one, he'd put his cap on, taken out one of those neck-rest things and a blindfold that people use on flights and gone to sleep. Or at least I thought he had. As we wheeled our luggage along the platform I asked if he'd slept much. "No. Not at all" he said. "I heard everything all night". "Oh" I said, as while avoiding the touts and taxi drivers, we stepped out of the station and into the Chittagong traffic.