We didn’t think we’d ever make it out of Agra. For days we wasted away in our dusty hotel room. Every evening, our tourguides who had adopted us against our will apologetically informed us that the train was again sold out. We felt kidnapped and smothered by smiling, friendly faces with a taste for whiskey. Whiskey we always ended up paying for.
But last night we were stubborn, we whined and nearly cried. And for a couple hundred extra rupees slipped to some cousin to the wife of the conductor, we were secured seats on midnight’s sold-out train. Nathalie and I exhaled with relief as we sat in our bunks, staring out the window as the train finally pulled us out of Agra and into the impenetrably dark landscape of northern India.
For the next few hours, neither of us spoke. I buried myself in the Proust book I’d been reading for many days now. Nathalie gazed persistently out the window, peering forward toward the onrushing horizon. She seemed to be on the lookout for some abstract object to emerge that only she could see. The warm, sticky air sat like a fever between the two of us.
In the town of Firozabad, a round and stocky man got on the train to occupy the bunk across from Nathalie and I. We both watched him place his suitcase on the shelf above him, securely padlocking it into place. Then he sat down and faced us both with a wide smile. Despite the stickiness of the night air, his crisp, white dress shirt gleamed elegantly against the backdrop of his deep, brown skin. His moustache lent him a jolly air, and his eyes widened with friendly curiousity at the two pale travelers sitting across from him. “Where are you and your girlfriend going?” he finally asked, then winked at me conspiratorially. “Just to Varanasi,” I answered, and wrapped my arm uncertainly around Nathalie’s shoulder, which she shrugged off. “I am going to Lucknow,” he announced, answering our question before we could ask. “Do you like your new president?” he next inquired. But both Nathalie and I could only answer with puzzled looks. His eyebrows furrowed, “You have new president now. Haven’t you heard?” “Oh!” Nathalie exclaimed, smiling with sudden understanding. “We have both been traveling in India for many months now. We haven’t been keeping in touch with what is going on in America.” “Ahh,” he smiled again. “You like India?” he asked. I lay back on the dusty bunk, my fatigue arising suddenly and gratefully overwhelming me. The rhythmic clattering of the train wheels on the track hypnotized me and the sounds of Nathalie chatting with our travel companion reduced to a drone of intertwining voices. The rocking of the train car teased me gently into my dreams. The last I remember was the sound of a match being struck in the next compartment, and the sharp smell of incense striking my nostrils. The man’s voice, together with Nathalie’s, retreated like an island into the horizon.
Some hours later, I awoke and immediately realized the train had stopped. I raised my head and through half-open eyes I saw we were in a station. The Indian fellow was standing, bent over his suitcase, clicking it shut. I looked drowsily around for Nathalie. Her face quickly appeared before me. “Where are we?” I wondered. “This is Lucknow,” she replied. Then, “I can’t sleep. I’m going outside for something to eat.” “Ok,” I mumbled. I let my head fall back, and sank immediately back into sleep.
It was morning when I again awoke. I sensed other passengers also slowly emerging from sleep and moving about in the train passageways. They walked by clutching warm cups of steaming chai in their hands. I gazed out the window at the dry countryside rushing swiftly by under the cool, dawn air; a dusty mist hung low over the fields. The train compartment was still and empty. When I realized Nathalie was absent also, I immediately stood up and searched the shelf above for our bags. Mine was still there, but Nathalie’s was gone. Somehow I wasn’t surprised.