Thirteen Hours to Midnight
They spend their lives waiting for midnight.
Napoleon once said
that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers. He should have visited India
today. Small one-room shops abound, specialising in just about anything
imaginable. Look into each one and you will see faces gazing out into
the street. They look and wait
and wait. Owners, or the relatives
of owners, sit behind desks in charge of the cash. Employees watch and
wait for custom. Armies of boys and men stand and wait in cafes. Many
have travelled from half way across the country to work for sixty or seventy
rupees per day waiting on tables. Some work seven days a week and perhaps
are allowed a few weeks off each year so they can visit their parents
or wives and children.
say that cricket is the biggest thing in India and I can see why
it is so big. Much of it involves waiting. It is a slow paced game;
chess on grass. On almost every strip of waste ground, young boys
play cricket. They wait - for the bowler to bowl; for the batsman
to bat; and for the fielder to eventually field. This near eternity
of waiting mirrors just about everything else that goes on around
"Living-in" on the premises or in nearby accommodation is the
norm for many, while others are given the dubious luxury of sleeping on
the tables which double as beds once the restaurant closes. Their world
is their job. Working for thirteen hours a day, every day, with maybe
an hour break is not unusual. And midnight is finishing time. They spend
their lives waiting for midnight.
Flurries of activity occur at meal times or when women come out to shop
with daughters or spouses in the evening. The rest of the time is the
waiting game. Just like cricket. Boring? Many would say so, but by no
means all would.
"No, I do not get bored sir. It is my duty."
This response was once provided by a train attendant who had been plying
the Jodphur to Allahabad route for over thirty years. His job was to attend
to the needs of his passengers in a first class coach - providing pillows,
allocating designated berths and such like. In Hinduism, devotion to service
is regarded as a kind of devotion to God through doing the best according
to your station in life.
I am not a cricket fan. I find it boring to watch, and when forced to
play at school, boring to play. So it comes as little surprise to me that
I get easily frustrated by India. The place is cricket with a billion
people. Waiting in a queue for an hour to buy a train ticket; waiting
for trains that are over three hours late; and waiting...and waiting.
It does not seem to try the patience of too many Indians, whereas mine
snaps all too often.
So when my friend Shweta said that she would meet me in a dhaba at ten
thirty in the morning, being an impatient Westerner I actually believed
that she would be there. She arrived thirty five minutes later, blaming
the traffic and the cycle-rickshaw man for getting lost. But in all honesty,
I was used to waiting at that stage and thirty five minutes wasnt
too bad. It could have been much longer.
Shweta was beautiful. When she walked, she glided with her dupatta flowing
behind. She was studying for her doctorate - something to do with the
history of the Indian novel. She explained it to me once. It all sounded
impressive. Unfortunately, that was about the only time that she said
anything to me that consisted of more than three consecutive utterances.
Trying to get her to talk was like waiting for a second rate batsman to
hit a six - it rarely happens. So everytime I was with her the conversation
was one-sided. I probed, prompted, provoked and used just about every
social skill to get her to talk, but with little or no success. After
a few days I almost gave up. Long periods of silence were punctuated with
a remark or question from me. One word or one phrase utterances were provided
in response if I got lucky. Often, it was just a smile.
When I met her in the dhaba she told me that her "local guardian"
would be coming along shortly. I nodded trying to demonstrate a kind of
knowing agreement while thinking to myself "What the hell is a local
guardian!?" It did not take long for me to find out. He was her brothers
friend who was to accompany us almost everywhere we went - her chaperone.
I dont suppose that it was the case that her family thought I could
not be trusted with her; more the case that it may look bad for her to
be seen out and about with a Western man in such a provincial town as
Allahabad. I knew this because on those occasions we were chaperoneless,
a few men uttered something to her in Hindi. I asked whether they had
said bad things to her; she replied "Yes.
Shweta told me that her family knickname was "lovely". I could
see why. She had a good nature. But I could not help thinking that her
gentleness was in part a result of her having been more or less under
the strict control of the men in her family. She came from a very traditional
background. Subordination can sometimes result in a certain type of "loveliness"
- the type Western women lost a long time back as they began to assert
I first met Shweta on a train going across Northern India and had just
laid out my bedsheet on the lower berth with the aim of settling down
for the night. She was sitting opposite with her mother and father. I
was quite taken aback when she initiated a conversation with me. A young
Indian woman does not often begin talking to strangers, particularly foriegn
men. We ended up exchanging addresses and wrote to one another when I
returned to England. It was a strange train ride really. Shweta and her
parents alighted at around nine thirty only for another entourage to fill
A man in uniform holding a machine gun sat with two quite rough looking
slightly built men. I guessed that the one in the uniform was a policeman.
One of the others began to talk to me in broken English. After answering
the usual array of questions put to me, he mentioned something about the
Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh was the state that we were
travelling through and is Indias most populous. He gibbered on for a while
and I exclaimed ¨You are the Chief Minister for Uttar Pradesh!?¨
He smiled, gave a head wobble, and fanned out his moustache with the ends
of his fingers, using both hands. My exclamation came about because I
could not believe that such a scruffy figure, wearing tatty clothes and
with flip-flops on his feet could be a chief minister of any state in
any country anywhere on the planet. I probed just to make sure. His English
was bad but I thought that perhaps he could understand what I was saying
a lot more than I could understand him. Each
time I quizzed him over it, he either said ¨Yes¨ or wobbled his
head. What on earth would the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh be doing
in an ordinary second class sleeper talking to some foreigner. The guy
lacked any air of sophistication and I would not have trusted him to administer
a drinking session in a brewery based on what I was seeing.
So out of disbelief, I pulled out my camera and said ¨Photo?¨
As I brought the camera to my face all three sat erect, fanned out their
handlebar moustaches and put on their most serious faces. In India, it
often seems to be the case that the bigger the moustache is, then the
more important the wearer is. As far as photography goes, having your
picture taken can be a very serious business. Many Indians forget to smile
with the outcome being a rather miserable looking person frowning into
A few minutes later, one of the three men mentions the word ¨bodyguard¨.
The penny drops. These three sorry figures are the bodyguards of the Chief
Minister who I then find out is in the next carriage, no doubt bodyguardless
as his men seem more fascinated with me than concerned for his safety.
The two men not in uniform pull out their concealed weapons to show me.
It was unnerving to think that these two had formal legitimacy for carrying
guns. Their whole demeanour and attitude seemed totally amateur.
An official from the Chief Ministers carriage comes along and the three
men disappear with him. The only thing to remind me that they had been
with me is the cumbersome looking machine gun on the opposite bench which
the uniformed guy just happened to forget. About thirty seconds later
he reappears and collects it as if he was just returning to pick up a
newspaper that he had forgot to take with him. I suppose that he did not
think it careless to have left it with a complete stranger, probably believing
that it would have required a good ten minutes for me to stare at the
thing and wait
and wait, before finally deciding to pick it up and
spray mayhem throughout the Chief Ministers carriage.
The next morning the train crawled into New Delhi station. Over the next
nine days I do a lot of staring and waiting. I stare at the ceiling as
I wait in bed lying flat on my back. I make frequent visits to the bathroom
and stare down the toilet as I throw up into it. It is Christmas and New
Year time and I am stuck in the hotel Vishal nursing a severe bout of
dysentery. It is one of the coldest periods on record in Delhi. At night
the temperature falls to five degrees celcius. People walk around wrapped
in blankets or shawls with the breath clouding the night air. When Indian
cities are cold and cloudy they can be very depressing. The filth, power
cuts and chaos seem more salient. At least when bathed in sun, they appear
Over the nine day period that I am laid up in bed with the Bob Segar version
of ¨Santa Claus is Coming to Town¨ constantly bellowing from a
room across the hallway. The Kashmiri occupant and his German girlfriend
are stuck in Delhi waiting to head north into the mountains. Everytime
I think of Bob Segar or hear that song, I automatically think of dysentery.
I am sure that Bob Segar wanted to be remembered for so much more. After
I recovered, I took a forty hour train journey south to Chennai. I needed
a warmer climate. A few days after arriving, I take a plane back to the
UK. I had had a gutful of India literally.
A few months later, I returned to see Shweta. And a few months after that
I never saw or heard from her again. I suppose that I got sick of waiting
- waiting for her to be someone she wasn¨t - waiting for her to become
someone she couldn¨t be. It was all my fault. In some ways Shweta
was a product of her country. I should not have expected her to change.
In India, you wait, you accept, and you take things as they are. It is
all like a game of cricket. Much of the waiting in India is punctuated
with remarks from well intention people who say ¨Take a seat. You
drink chai?¨ As if sitting and drinking tea will make it all OK. It
will not, but it is all part of the game.
I am writing this after having finished a ten hour coach journey. Every
journey begins in the same manner. The guy who packs the bags into the
storage compartment of the bus slams it shut and frantically cajoles everyone
to get on board. The driver has started the engine. Everyone rushes to
get on in a state of semi-panic thinking that departure is imminent. But
alas, it never is. We then sit waiting for about half an hour. We wait
for the last passenger to arrive, for the driver to get his time sheet
filled-in or God knows what, why or who. And me? I usually end up on the
wrong side of the bus with the sun blazing down and sweating buckets.
On arrival I checked into a hotel. After lying on my bed for twenty minutes
I feel that I am getting bitten. I am. I look at the sheets and find about
half a dozen bed bugs. I go to see the manager at the reception.
"I pay one hundred rupees for bed bugs", I complain.
He looks at me in a way that says - "So what is your problem?"
After waiting and thinking, he finally says in a polite manner,
"Yes sir, but there are not that many."
I try to explain that it only requires one bed bug to get eaten alive.
Again he waits and thinks. Eventually he tells me to wait in my room and
one of the hotel boys will be along to sort it out. After forty five minutes,
one of his boys arrives with a bulky contraption strapped to him. He points
the nozzle of the tube at the bed and sprays some foul smelling stuff
on the sheets. I started to cough and have to leave the room. The manager
comes along and tells me that all will be OK in ten minutes after the
fumes go. Eventually they did. After ten hours.
I never did get to like cricket. And it is probably going to be a long
haul for me to get to like India. But I have been there for long enough
and visited so many times. I have spent years rather than months in the
place. Maybe its time I packed up my bat and ball and went home. Cricket
was never any fun.
© Colin Todhunter November 2002
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