A moment in time

by Jan Wheatcroft

I stand in the Indian train station, alone for a moment while being jostled by the crowds of people all intent on being somewhere else at that very same moment. Now I am surrounded by bags and cases. It is my job to gather and guard them while Frances’s job is to buy the tickets and gather information.

Frances lives in England while I live in California. We met many years ago at a self development center on a peaceful Greek Island, where we discovered that we had the same wanderlustful traveling passions. Now we comfortably slip into our roles, I am the suitcase caretaker while she buys the tickets.

She operates better in situations of confrontation. She is more assured than I am. I stand content to watch and dream as the people stream by doing what they always do. Then I spin stories about their lives to myself. Sometimes I tell Frances these stories as I invent them and she laughs while we enjoy my imagination.

Today we are in Kurseong, a small town part way up the Eastern Himalayas where the tiny toy train huffs and puffs as it winds its way up to Darjeeling, the Queen of the British Raj. Tea plantations painted in rich greens cover the hills. This is a society that no longer exists—a life that was supported by servants and the Victorian need to escape from the heat. I will breathe in the remains, digging through the past as the archaeologist does to feed my imagination. 

As I look up, I notice a small boy standing near by watching me. He is neatly dressed in grey trousers and a well-pressed shirt. His black hair is slick with comb marks against his nutty brown skin. As he watches me intently I think that maybe he wants to talk. I smile and say, “Hello.”?He smiles and “hellos” me in return. 

We begin a small conversation. I ask him if he speaks English, which he does quite well. He explains that he has learned English in school, which has now finished for the day. He is 11 and quite happy to wait and talk.

The train is late in arriving from the New Jaipalguri station so the boy just stands and asks me questions. Frances returns with our tickets and assumes her role as tour leader while I enjoy falling under her spell of travel knowledge. I tell her about our new friend and she returns his questions with answers and then more questions of her own.

I find that the Indians we meet are so open and friendly. They often approach us to practice their English as well as to learn about what is outside of their own world. Our young friend asks for nothing. He seems content just to be here with us. We dig through our purses to find coins from our home countries. I find a quarter and a dime and Frances digs out a 20 pence piece and two English pennies.We hand them to him explaining what they are, and his eyes glow as he keeps looking at them, asking over and over what they are until he has committed it to memory. I like his solidness. He is a gentle by, shy yet eager to be in our company—two older foreign ladies on the platform of the toy train to Darjeeling.

Frances goes to buy our snacks. We always have snacks on a train trip no matter how short the jaunt will be. It is part of the fun of train travel. Frances follows the boy to a vendor and treats him to a bag of crispy chips and an orange drink. He smiles as he has now assumed the role of guide.

We walk up the platform, our snacks in our backpacks while he clutches his in his hands. We notice a door that says, “Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, Kurseong Museum.”?It is closed. Frances goes to the ticket office and asks if we can visit the museum. A man in an official hat carrying a large ring of keys follows her back to the museum to open the door. He calls over a woman in an official brown uniform to wait as we walk around the room, looking at all the artifacts: old clocks, pottery, silverware, parts of engines and curled brown-edged photographs of the Raj when the train carried the English families up from the hot plains to this cooler mountain retreat. It is what we have come to discover and we devour the photos. Our young friend looks carefully at everything. This is his history. 

We wander outside and stand together. The boy quietly tells us about how he likes to spend time at the train station and dream about seeing the world. His family are Christians and attend the church near by. He describes his large family of three brothers and a younger sister. The train station is more peaceful than being at home. Then we hear the train whistle and a few minutes later the train arrives.

We watch as one engine pulls the carriages in and another engine attaches itself to the back end to pull the train out. We climb into the small, dusty carriage of this toy-sized train with open windows. The boy helps us with the bags as the whistle blows. We wave and watch him as he is slowly reduced to a dot on the receding platform. Frances tells me that he said we were the nicest people he had ever met.

I make up stories about him and his life in the same way that I knit hats, twisting the yarns to make patterns of my own choosing. I like these encounters. Meeting him has anchored me to where I am for a short while and reminds me of the reason I travel.

We move along a railway so narrow that as we pass through villages we can literally reach out and touch the buildings along the track. I am happy to see the rich green land so full of orchids and other bright flowers before us as we travel up the mountain through the vast green tea plantations.


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