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Thirteen Hours to Midnight
Colin Todhunter

They spend their lives waiting for midnight.

They 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 them.
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.

"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 wasn’t 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 brother’s friend who was to accompany us almost everywhere we went - her chaperone. I don’t 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 their rights.

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 their place.
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 the lens.
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 more appealing.

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

You can buy Colin's Tales from an Indian Continent
- The Madras Diaries
Traveller Tales on the Road in India
a new book by Colin Todhunter
available now
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Read Colin's Collection of India Stories now available, with new unpublished additions in Hacktreks first work in print.

Colin Todhunter in India
All Aboard the Tamil Nadu Express: next stop - insanity!
Colin Todhunter in India
He had met a woman in the hotel, and was totally mad about her.

From Copenhagen to Byron Bay:
A tale of two women
Colin Todhunter
"In India first you get married and then you work these things out", he said with amazing casualness.

Poison Kiss
"There will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says...
Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.

The unique experience of going
to the gym in India

Colin Todhunter

Me, God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
Colin Todhunter

I got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost in space.

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