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Night-Train Glimpses of India

A traveling bazaar is this writer's favorite way to get from here to there on the subcontinent

I AM not even late. But the scooter-rickshaw driver seems to think Indian Railways is holding the train for me.

We are in the traffic of Delhi at midday, the lurching, chortling, sputtering mass of bicycles, buses, human beings, cars, scooters, and a variety of other transports seething in and out of each other's way.

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Thankfully, a long stretch of calm lies ahead: the 16 1/2-hour sleeper train from New Delhi to Benaras, 475 miles away. Night trains in India are a common and efficient way to get where you have to be without losing sleep, and without really noticing that you are traveling. And they have always offered me the chance to meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from low-budget Western travelers (some of them a little on the grubby side) to Indian businessmen experienced in the art of making a night on the train as painless as possible.

Meanwhile, the rickshaw driver is hunched over the handlebars - his vehicle is a three-wheeled motor scooter built to hold passengers on a bench-like back seat, all covered with a tarpaulin cocoon - hurtling through a din of buzzers, horns, and bicycle bells. He sometimes gets the best of bigger vehicles, like buses and cars, and sometimes gets forced aside, squeezing into fleeting, shifting spaces, nearly running down mere humans and bicyclists, forcing them to twist and dodge for the sake of their feet

if not their lives. (It's particularly harrowing to watch people board and get off public buses, since the drivers rarely stop. They just slow down.)

But we get to the New Delhi station, where amid the usual bedlam a sign in Hindi and English urges travelers to "Enter the platform only when unavoid- able. Overcrowding causes inconvenience." Satisfied that my entry onto the platform is unavoidable, I go toward my train, the Kashi-Vishwanath Express. Benaras, India's holiest city, is officially called Varanasi and also known as Kashi, its Sanskrit name. Vishwanath, or "lord of the universe," is the name of the city's best-known Hindu idol.

The train looks like most other Indian Railways trains, painted a deep burgundy. The first-class car has ominous, immovable, tinted windows, but the rest of the cars have bars that let the breeze in and keep people out. Painted in yellow on the side of my car is the legend: "II Class, 3 Tier." There are many ways of traveling in this country - everything from horse carts to airliners - but "II Class, 3 Tier" overnight travel is my favorite. Potato stew in leaf bowls

One appeal is the bazaar element. On the platform are newsstands, fruit carts, tea stalls, and vendors selling puris (saucer-sized fried breads) and potato stew that they dish out in disposable bowls made out of leaves. Walking through the car are people selling peanuts, a crunchy snack made from lentils, more tea, and omelets with tomato sauce. I was once on a train where a man marketed his lentil snack food by singing a humorous song about a few of India's politicians. His business was good.

I buy a few bananas and oranges on the New Delhi platform, along with some newspapers and a magazine. Then I'm reassured to see my name on the reservation chart posted outside the car. When I get to my set of berths - now set up as seats - I meet an English nurse who has just spent three months volunteering at Mother Teresa's charitable missions in Calcutta. The nurse has a lot to say about Calcutta ("It's not to be missed") and about the difficulty she has had maneuvering around this country - she is ta ll and red-headed and attracts unwanted attention from men. She's a little down on India.

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Then the ticket taker comes and tells me I must pay him an extra 21 rupees (about 80 cents) even though I thought I'd paid the travel agent the full fare of 132 rupees (about $5). I give him the money. He comes back later, tells me I was right, and returns the rupees. The English nurse is impressed.

By this time we have passed New Delhi's factories, shantytowns, and suburban satellite communities. Now green fields, interspersed with patches of bright yellow mustard plants and plots of bushy sugar cane, drift by the window. Occasionally the train stops at a station and the bazaar restarts just outside. Business is transacted through the bars of the windows.

Soon one of our berth mates, a middle-aged Indian man, curls up for a nap. Later, a religious mendicant in saffron robes walks down the aisle into our area with his stainless steel alms bowl and a walking stick. He looks about 30 years old. He glances at our sleeping bunkmate, taps him awake, and motions for him to make room. Holy men and women travel Indian Railways for free, and with reservations. The holy man and his groggy neighbor end up having a long conversation on topics too complex for my Hindi. 'Recycling' tinfoil

During the late afternoon, a man in a white coat comes by to take dinner orders. There are two choices: vegetarian or non-vegetarian thali, the Hindi word for the steel trays that the food comes on. A thali really means that rice, lentils, and bread will be served along with a main dish or two.

The orders are wired to a station ahead, and the thalis are picked up during a station stop and distributed to the passengers. After dinner the trays are collected and off-loaded further up the line.

Recently I've been on a train where the thali system has been replaced by food distributed in tinfoil dishes. After dinner, I wondered what to do with the trash. Normally I don't balk at throwing it out the window, since food is usually served in leaf-dishes and tea often comes in disposable clay cups. But tinfoil? Go right ahead, said my two Indian seat mates, one of them a botanical scientist who preserves endangered plants for a living; it will be recycled. I immediately had a vision of people who hav e created a livelihood walking behind trains, collecting the tinfoil detritus.

Now it's bedtime. The blue-gray padded bench that we have been sitting on is the lower berth, and the seat-back folds up to become the middle berth. Above is the third tier. Passengers are opening suitcases and unpacking blankets, shawls, and the occasional inflatable pillow. Some people are carrying elaborate bed rolls, designed for train travel, which include a sheet and a blanket and a little more padding. A few passengers go down to brush their teeth at the sink near the pair of bathrooms at each end

of the car.

It's not exactly silent at night, since the train makes a lot of noise, but everyone stops talking and most of the lights go off. When we roll into Varanasi at 6 o'clock the next morning, people are packing up and going off to splash water on their faces and having tea. And sometimes they are exchanging addresses and calling cards.

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