I took a motor rickshaw to the train station in the city of Belapur, the rickshaw chugging along with a moped-like sound. The driver didn’t speak much English, but understood, “Belapur Railway Station.” I had my tabla, a traditional drum from India, my suitcase with my clothes, and an assortment of accessories, and my backpack with my laptop, writing materials, and other essentials. The feeling of flying by cars in this little machine is priceless: as if you are inside a lawnmower-powered box with tiny wheels, courageously dashing through chaotic traffic.
I arrived at the Belapur Railway Station in one piece, and took a heavy breath as I unloaded my baggage on the tobacco-splattered pavement before the ticket office. I was first taking a local train to Tilak Nagar, my connection to Nagpur, a huge city in the center of India, where I was going to learn traditional vocal music. Standing in line, I counted at least 20 people staring at me because of being a foreigner and my baggage. It is a common occurrence to be stared down in India if you are a foreigner. I bought my ticket, which was 55 cents for a 20 minute train ride. The prices still blow me away.
After carrying my suitcase up stairs and down stairs, bracing the hard plastic tabla bag on my shoulder and the backpack on my back, I already felt I had gone to a gym for half an hour. I got a tip from a scruffy-looking local: I should go to the opposite platform, as a train will come there shortly that will go in the same direction and will be empty, as compared to the train, which will come to the platform I was on, which would be full already. So, I moved my bags again, and noted in my head about how getting advice from locals is important.
When the train came after 15 minutes or so, I got on with beastly speed, as the train only stops for a few seconds. The locals again stared at me because of being a foreigner and my luggage. This was a train people rarely took on more than a backpack, and they rarely saw foreigners on local transport. After a few moments of being on the train, one broad-faced guy asked me if he could talk to me. He wanted to know if I was in a band, because of my drum, and he named a specific group. I stated no, but I love to play tabla. The strain of the conversation switched suddenly and he asked for my Facebook details. I wanted to give him my name on Facebook, as he looked harmless, but I didn’t have a pen or a business card. I gave him my email address though by him writing it down on his simple phone. He was a student of engineering with his exams being tomorrow—I wished him good luck for the exams sincerely, as I know what it means to Indian students to get good marks on their exams: their status and livelihood. If students do not get good enough scores, job opportunities will be few in a highly-competitive environment, even for those that achieve the heights of the best students in the country.
During the moments of silence in our conversation, I took a glance around the train: hanging metal fans when it got too hot and iron supports for when the train jostled a bit too hard; ripped up gray paint; and the locals, almost all men with short, black hair, checkered shirts, and light khaki pants—the mark of a common businessman in India. Some people were hanging out of the train with only one arm clinging onto iron bars near the open entryway. Every time we stopped, either the smell of pee or chewing tobacco reeked.
The student I met helped me unload my luggage as the train reached Tilak Nagar Station through the dramatic pulse of moving bodies in the 5-10 seconds one has to get off the train already filled with people. He shook my hand strongly and glared into my eyes with marks of genuine care and friendship, despite us meeting for only 20 minutes. And naturally, I was swayed emotionally to be as sympathetic towards him, and signaled our momentary companionship to him.